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Can Women Lead Mixed-gender Prayers?

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I happened to read that Prophet Mohammed appointed a lady Umme Waraqa as imam to a locality to lead Jamaat or congregational prayer where both men and women followers prayed. Is this incident reported through authentic sources? If this report is credible, it seems to me strange and surprising that though I attended hundreds of Islamic classes and read a lot of articles, not a single maulavi has ever mentioned this during discussion about rights and roles of Muslim women in Ummah. Is it part of usual “male censorship” made by patriarchal religious scholars? When I asked about this, a moulavi told me that though it is a true narration, it is an exceptional case. But still my surprise remains, because I could never hear citing this incident by Maulavis even as an isolated case till date. I would like to know more about the authenticity of the report because it will be a potential ideological tool to deconstruct patriarchal reading of Islam? Expecting in-depth and detailed reply.
. P. Naseem, Kerala
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Maqbool Ahmed Siraj replies:
Umme Waraqa, may Allah be pleased with her, was a woman from Ansar of Madinah who embraced Islam in its early phase. She is one among the holy companions of the Prophet as she is reported to have offered her services for the Battle of Badr to the Prophet and requested him to take her along as she wanted to fight the enemy.
But there is a much more surprising aspect that she was appointed imam of a mosque in her locality in Madinah and that men prayed behind her. The muezzin was a man. It is therefore obvious that he too prayed behind the female imam. This account occurs in the Sunan of Abu Dawood and Masnad of Ahmad bin Hanbal. She was appointed the imam around the time of Battle of Badr and she was alive till the last years of the caliphate of Hazrat Umar, may Allah be pleased with him. This means that she led the prayer for nearly 17 years.
This has been quoted by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, the noted Islamic scholar and author hailing from Hyderabad, who located himself in Paris after the fall of Hyderabad. (Ref: Muhammad Hamidullah, The Emergence of Islam : Bahawalpur Lecture on the Development of Islamic Worldview, Intellectual Tradition and Polity, Adam Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi). There are also references to Nafisah Bint al-Hasan Ibn Zayd Ibn al-Hasan Ibn Ali leading Imam Shafii’s funeral prayers. Ahmed E. Souaiaia’s book Contesting Justice: Women, Islam Law and Society (Published by State University of New York Press, 2008) while quoting this says in bibliographical note that “the practice of women leading the prayers was common in early Islam”. (He refers to Ahmad Ibn Ali al-Maqrizi’s book al-Khutat al-maqriziyyah published by Dar Sadir, Beirut).
About Umme Waraqa the website http://www.wisemuslimwomen.org has the following to say:
Umm Waraqa bint Abdallah, or Umm Waraqa, was the Prophet Muhammad’s companion. She was well versed in the Quran and the Prophet trained her and allowed her to lead mixed-gender prayers. Whether the hadith refers to leading prayers in a residence or a community is open to interpretation. Even so, she was the imam of her clan, which was significant and large enough to have its own muezzin.
Umm Waraqa wished to be known as a martyr, so she asked Prophet Muhammad to allow her to participate in the Battle of Badr (624 A.D./ 2 A.H.) so that she could take care of the wounded; from that time on, Prophet Muhammad referred to her as “the female martyr.”
There is no question that the vast majority of jurists excluded women from ever leading men in prayer. Many jurists, however, permitted women to lead women in prayer, if no male is available to lead the prayer. Some jurists said women may lead women even if a male is available to lead as long as women lead only women. Up to the fourth Islamic century, there were at least two schools of thought that allowed women to lead men in prayer, if the woman in question was the most learned. Since the fourth century all schools of thought did not allow women to lead men in prayer.
The powerful clique that has arrogated for itself the right to interpretation of Islam today has inherited the bias against women handed down from centuries. It is more focused on narrowing freedoms and constricting liberties that were enjoyed by Muslims in general and women in particular, in the earliest period of Islam and allowed by the holy Prophet. The current clergy, which has no religious legitimacy in Islam, has worked overtime to usurp all rights of interpretation for itself. First it excluded women. So half the Muslims were barred from exercising the religious authority and putting to use their knowledge and rationale. Then it marginalized a vast body of Muslims who did not know Arabic. And finally it began to question the right of interpretation of those who were not educated and trained in madrassas. Today, the entire community is compelled to follow diktats of a few who have no knowledge of social, economic and political issues. Their patriarchal interpretation dominates the discourse delivering a daily diet of embarrassment to the enlightened Muslims. It is for people like you to counter such tendencies.