Sunday, December 03, 2006
  Women in the mosque according to the Qur'an and Hadith
I've been a long-time advocate of women praying the same space as men. This is the way the Prophet did it, but increasingly masjids in America are putting up curtains between men and women or putting women on a balcony or in a totally different room.

I can see at least two problematical issues involved in segregation. One is the problems it creates for social interations (more on this tomorrow). The second is the wholesale abandonment of the Prophet's way.

Now, anyone who has read this blog for very long will know that I'm not a hard and fast stick to the letter of the shariah and sunnah kind of person, but I do believe when you are going to deviate from the Sunnah, or the Shariah, you better have a darn good reason -- like your deviation implements the spirit behind the letter of the sunnah or shariah when sticking to the letter of the sunnah or shariah results in a contradiction of that spirit.

Shari'ah, for my non-Muslim readers, is Islamic law, and it has two competeing meanings -- one being the law of God, the other being the code of law Islamic scholars and jurists have devised in their best attempt to approximate that law of God. These two meanings are often conflated and tangled together, so that the code devised by men is seen by many as the Divine Law -- which has lead to myriad problems as evinced in place like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, etc. The Sunnah is one source of Shariah-- it consists of the things the Prophet did, so when we say something is according to the Prophet's sunnah, it means we are doing something the way we know he did it. There are a lot of sources for this knowledge -- the Qur'an itself (which Muslims believe is the revealed word of God ala the Ten Commandments -- God speaking to human directly -- and collections of hadith, which are the narrations of the Prophet's companions telling us about him (sort of like the Gospels). The most accepted collections of hadith among Sunni Muslims are Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Daud, Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, and Nisai.

Strangely enough, most of the folks who are deviating from the Prophet's sunnah in segregating our mosques do not share that belief that the letter of the sunnah is flexible and needs to be revisited from time to time; they believe in revisiting the law to deal with new situations as they arise, but not to come up with new rulings within the context of existing law. This becomes important later, so hold onto that thought.

So, let's start decontructing...

First, do we know the Prophet's sunnah in his masjid? Yes.

We know that, as today, the Muslims prayed in rows. The Prophet's companion, Abu Huraira, was of the opinion that men should be in front and women in the back. We read in Muslim (book 4, #881): Abu Huraira said: The best rows for men are the first rows, and the worst ones the last ones, and the best rows for women are the last ones and the worst ones for them are the first ones. So clearly men and women were all praying in the masjid, and there wasn't any segregation, as the men and women could pick which rows to be in. (Note: nowadays it is deriguer that the women be in the back rows and the men be in the front rows, but evidently that wasn't the case in the prophet's masjid as they could obviously choose which row to pray in or else there would be no need for advice about which row they ought to pray in.)

Supporting this notion that there was no segregation, even among rows is a hadith I read years ago in which a woman asked the man next to her what the Prophet had just said during his Khutbah (source coming as soon as I can track it down). And this one: "Maimuna, the wife of the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him), reported: The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said prayer while I was by his side, and at times when he prostrated his clothing touched me, and he prayed on a small mat. (Muslim Book 4, Number 1392)

Now, to be honest, there are hadith which suggest that at least the majority of women followed that advice and prayed in the back. This one for instance: "Once the Prophet came out (for the 'Id prayer) and it is as if I were just observing him waving to the people to sit down. He, then accompanied by Bilal, came crossing the rows till he reached the women." There are numerous variations on this hadith in Bukhari and Muslims, with this particular version coming from Bukhari: Volume 6, Book 60, Number 418. (Note: again, no mention of curtains or the women being in a separate room.) And there are several in which the Prophet went to a person's home and they prayed with the men in front, the children in the middle, and the women behind. (See Muslim Book 4, 1387-90 for instance.)

Either way, behind or beside, there was no curtain, no women on the balcony or a different room.

The best proof of all is this hadith:

"Narrated Sahl: The men used to pray with the Prophet with their Izars (a long cloth) tied around their necks as boys used to do; therefore the Prophet told the women not to raise their heads till the men sat down straight. (This is reported in at least three hadith in sahih Bukhari: Volume 1, Book 8, Number 358; Volume 1, Book 12, Number 778; Volume 2, Book 22, Number 306; as well as Muslim Book 4, number 883.)

For those who don't understand what is going on here -- the men's garments were too short to cover them properly when they bent down in prostration, and the women are being asked to keep their heads down a bit longer, until the men sit up, so they won't acidentally see some gentlemen's privates! Clearly there were no curtains, nor were the women in a different space!

So, to sum up, it appears pretty well documented that men and women did pray in the same place, with no curtains, no balconies, no separate rooms. They were either mingled in or in separate rows, but the bulk of women chose to pray at the back. (The fact that they could choose back then, means we could choose now, but the topic of this article isn't how we pray in the masjid together, but rather do we pray in the masjid together at all, which is still an issue in something like 80% of american mosques and an even greater percentage of overseas mosques.)

So why would we leave this sunnah?

Many claim that women may have been allowed to come, but they didn't often as it was recommended to pray at home. Well, the hadith as we've seen show they were in the mosque.

Further, we know they were regular in coming to the moque. In Sahih Muslim (Book 4, 1892 and 1893) we read about the sister of Amra daughter of Abd al-Rahman , and the dauther of Harith bint Numan, that they "memorised Surah Qaf:" By the glorious Qur'an," from the mouth of the Messenger of Allah for he recited it on the pulpit on-every Friday."

We also know that they went through some difficulty in order to be able to come to the mosque.

There are several hadith that talk about the Prophet cutting his prayers short because he heard babies crying, for instance, Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 11, Number 677: "Narrated Anas bin Malik: The Prophet said, "When I start the prayer I intend to prolong it, but on hearing the cries of a child, I cut short the prayer because I know that the cries of the child will incite its mother's passions." So they did not let children stop them from coming.

Nor were nasty conditions on the road an excuse: In Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Number 0384:
we read that a woman of the Banu AbdulAshhal asked the Apostle of Allah, "our road to the mosque has an unpleasant stench; what should we do when it is raining? He asked: Is there not a cleaner part after the filthy part of the road? She replied: Indeed! He said: It makes up for the other. "

Even inadequate clothing wasn't a reason not to come. Narrated Um 'Atiya:
We were ordered to bring out our menstruating women and veiled women in the religious gatherings and invocation of Muslims on the two 'Id festivals. These menstruating women were to keep away from their Musalla. A woman asked, "O Allah's Apostle ' What about one who does not have a veil?" He said, "Let her share the veil of her companion." (Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 8, Number 347)

And we know that women were habitually around the masjid because the mosque was a plaza in the middle of the houses, but also from hadiths such as Muslim, Book 4 Nubmers 1977-1981 where Amsa describes women praying with the Prophet during an eclipse of the sun.

Women even participated in itikaf -- a kind of seclusion in the mosque for several days of medition and prayer (some narrations put it up to twenty days in the mosque). There are several hadith in which the Prophet gave permission for his wives to perform itikaf and in Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 33, Number 253: we read about how they would do so even in difficulty, "Narrated 'Aisha: One of the wives of Allah's Apostle practiced Itikaf with him while she had bleeding in between her periods and she would see red (blood) or yellowish traces, and sometimes we put a tray beneath her when she offered the prayer." Also, Imam Malik opines that a woman in itikaf may be betrothed, and that if her itikaf is interupted by her menses, she should resume her itifak after they are over. (See the Mutawwa of Imam Malik).

Obviously that claim is based on something other than fact.

Another oftecited claim is that we are, as a society, so much worse than they were during the time of the Prophet, that we can no longer handle the responsiblity of praying together. Too much flirting, too much talking inappropriately would go on, so we have to segreagate our societies and our mosques.

So were gender relations in the Prophet's society so much better?

I don't think so.

We have hadith where men stared at beautiful women (and the prophet's solution was to turn the man's face, not to tell the woman to go away or to cover her face)(see for instance, Sahih Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 74, Number 247).

We have hadith where men and women committed adultery (seven in Bukhari alone) And the Qur'an teaches us about witnessing in cases of adultery and about lian where one spouses suspects the other of adultery and the husband and wife both take oaths that they are telling truth, so clearly it was happening.

We have hadith where a woman was raped. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 38, Number 4366).

We have numerous hadith about a prostitution, including one where a prostitute was forgiven her sins for feeding a dehydrated dog. (Bukhari Volume 4, Book 54, Number 538) There is even a verse in the Qur'an telling Muslims not to force their slave girls into protitution. Clearly that sin was not absent from the Prophet's society.

We even a hadith prohibiting people from circumambulating the kaba while naked (!!) (and this was the year before the Prophet's final pilgrimage, not early on when one might expect a lot of non-Muslims to be present!!!)( Bukhari: Volume 1, Book 8, Number 365)

Ironically, the very same reason was given for keeping women out of the masjid not long after the Prophet's death. S ahih Muslim, Book 004, Number 0888 reads: "Ibn 'Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Do not prevent women from going to the mosque at night. A boy said to 'Abdullah b. Umar: We would never let them go out, that they may not be caught in evil. He (the narrator) said: Ibn Umar reprimanded him and said. I am saying that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said this, but you say: We would not allow!""

Another excuse offered is that the women feel more comfortable. Generally speaking, people who offer this excuse don't care if some women want to pray in the main prayer hall with the men, but they just don't want to do so themselves. Again, because they don't feel comfortable.
This is perhaps the strangest argument of all.

After all, most of these people would say that when it comes down to sunnah and shari'ah we don't have a choice, we need to do what the Prophet said and did, even if we don't like it, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Case in point, the vast majority of them would agree that non-Arab Muslims need to say their prayers in Arabic even though this caues some hardship, and the non-Arab would no doubt be more comfortable praying in his or her native language, not to mention that they might actually not have a clue as to what they are saying when they recite it in Arabic, so there are advantages in terms of understanding and sincerity of the prayer as well.

(Here's where the point I made way back in the fourth paragraph comes in to play... )

Not only would they not bend sunnah for the comfort of the non-Arabic speaker, but they don't want to take a different look at the sunnah and shariah. After all, one could argue that the sunnah of the prophet is to pray in the language one speaks -- he spoke Arabic, he prayed in Arabic, we speak English (or Urdu, or Malay, or whatever), we pray in English (Or Ursu or Malay or whatever). No, these folks believe in sticking to the letter of how the Prophet prayed, rather than the spirit.

And yet they want to abandon the letter of how the prophet arranged his masjid, which, ironically, also runs counter to the spirit in which he arranged it.

Still, inconsistency in the one makeing an argument does not mean that the argument is worthless... so what about the women's comfort? What if women feel shy or men, or want to nurse their children in private in the prayer area?

Well, we have the hadith mentioned about about the prophet shortening his prayers due to the crying of children -- so presumably the women of his time had to deal with this issue and managed to find a way, despite the fact there wasn't a curtain and they weren't in a separate room.

We have the hadith, about women keeping their heads down longer in prostration, surely an awkward and uncomfortable situation for women -- I mean surely the women must have felt a bit uncomfortable knowing the might inadvertently look up and see some gentleman's privates! Evidently they dealt with their discomfort. Surely we can deal with ours given far less provocation. If in such a situation women were not expected to leave, or put up a curtain, or to pray in a different room, then why would we implement those solutions today?

If you've made it this far... bravo! You have stamina! I just hope all these hadith and the discussion of why some of these reasons people give for disregarding the prophet's sunnah turns out to be helpful for someone in trying to fight a curtain, or for the right to pray off the balcony, or out of the the backroom.
Salaam, Pamela. You may be interested in a British documentary called Women Only Jihad , which was shown on our Channel 4 recently. I can't find a link to it, but if you google it you'll find plenty of people up in arms about the film!
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Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.

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Cane River
An interesting exploration of the gradual whiting of a family through slavery to modern days.

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Wanda Campbell also known as Nochipa A very gifted poet and a gentle, compassionate soul. Nochipa and I are on the same page on sooooo many things
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Ink in My Coffee Devon Ellington (who has numerous aliases) who is also the editor of Circadian Poems. A truly inspiring woman with a seemingly endless supply of energy.
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Freedom from the Mundane Colin Galbraith, another excellent writer, from Scotland.
The Scruffy Dog Review This is a new e-zine with an ecclectic mix of fiction, poetry, and non-fic, some really enjoyable pieces here.
Ramblings of a Suburban Soccer Mom Lara, another gentle soul, very thoughtful.
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