Home > Fiqh > Woman Imam: Progress or Digress?

Woman Imam: Progress or Digress?


March 18th 2005. A controversy stirred through the Muslim world as the unthinkable had happened: A woman, the infamous Amina Wudud, lead a mixed –sex Friday Jumah prayer, which stirred international media attention. It was attended by around 60 women and 40 men.[1] What led to such a state in the Ummah, where practices established by Prophet Muhammad PBUH, and confirmed by Muslim jurist through the ages were challenged in the name of reinterpreting the Quran and going back to sources? Is it ok to abandon completely the rigorous Islamic scholarship in the field of Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence), spanning more than a 1000 years? Where does one draw the line between blind following of the classical scholars and completely abandoning them? In a modest attempt to answer some of these questions, I will dig deeper into the “Amina Wudud” controversy and draw some lessons from this incident.

While the Amina Wudud incident was not the first woman imam to have led men in prayer, she was the one that attracted so much international attention to this issue. There are many instances in Canada, as well as established sermons, with the push of Progressive Muslim organizations such as Muslim Canadian Congress.  A woman, disguised as man, had sneaked in and started delivering the Friday Khutba in Bahrain. Her ploy was exposed and the police arrested her, while she tried to flee the mosque.[2]

The female imam incident can be traced back to a few movements that were gaining steam in Northern America: The influence of ideologies of feminism to certain so called Islamic reformers and the establishment of Progressive Muslim groups, with overt goals of reinterpreting the Quran to blend in with the North American secular, capitalistic society.  The influence of feminism into minds of certain Muslims can be traced back to a 19th Century Egyptian scholar, Qasim Amin, the author of book Women’s Liberation (Tahrir al-Mar’a).[3] He criticized established Islamic practices, with roots in Quran and Sunnah and upon which Islamic scholars have agreed upon, such as polygyny, the veil, hijab, gender segregation in Islam and actually condemned them to be not Islamic. With the Muslim populace significantly increasing in America, and being the birthplace of feminism, there was a ready audience to inculcate such a deviant interpretation without having a solid understanding of principles of Fiqh.

The common textual reason given by these feminist-oriented scholars is that there is no verse in the Quran overtly forbidding a woman leading men in prayer. This ultra-modernistic view can be traced back to abandoning the ground work that had been established as the principles of deducing rulings in the study of Islamic Jurisprudence – Fiqh. The sources of Islamic law that most major classical schools of thought utilized with some variations: Firstly, going to the Quran, then to the Sunnah, Opinions of Sahabas, Qiyaas (Deductions) and Istihsan (Legal preference).[4] While the four schools of thought should not be blindly followed (taqleed), the other extreme of completely rejecting the scholarship is also highly discouraged. This is because this extreme leads to interpreting the Quran however we want, without having a ground in the religion. While the Quran is the word of Allah, the Sunnah (traditions of prophet Muhammad SAW) helps us decipher the implementation of Quran in our lives.  Allah has commanded us in the Quran to obey Him and His messenger, implying that obedience to the messenger of Allah is obedience to Allah.

With these principles in mind, let us look at some of the established Hadith that refute the notion of “Woman Imam” in the sunnah: Ibn Majah (Kitab iqamat is-salat was-sunnati fiha) #1134, narrated through Jabir ibn Abdullah: “A woman may not lead a man in Prayer, nor may a Bedouin lead a believer of the Muhajirun or a corrupt person lead a committed Muslim in Prayer.”

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.”[5]

Additionally, there are no reports of woman leading a prayer during the life-time of Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Nor is there any report of such an incident during the lives of the companions of prophet. All the major schools of Islamic thought unequivocally reject this based on the rigorous methodology of Islamic legal analysis outlined earlier. This is one of the areas where there is “Ijma” or consensus among the companions of the prophet and among major scholars around the world in the past and present. In other words, it is as good as set in stone. [6]

The root cause of this issue is the lack of Islamic Scholarly knowledge of those attempting to go back to the sources and reinterpret legal rulings. One can interpret the Quranic versus to suit their opinion, if taken out of context or without utilizing the guidelines and training given by Prophet Muhammad SAW to his companions. Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad SAW had referred to his companions as the best of generations. The Quran was revealed in their period and dealt with the issues facing the early development of Islam; the companions were inarguably the best in interpreting the intended meanings, especially pertaining to moral, legal, spiritual and intellectual matters.[7] The classical Islamic scholarship, with slight variations, took extensive concern to extract correct rulings based on authentic texts and reasoned analysis while direct instruction was absent.

Allah has mentioned in the Quran:

“Allah has favored some of you over others with sustenance…” (Quran 16:71)

“Remember, O’ Israel, the blessings which I bestowed on you by favoring you over all mankind” (Quran 2:47) [By sending abundance of divine guidance via prophets]

“Men are guardians of women by that which Allah favored some of them over others…” (Quran 4:34)

By these verses, Allah has favored some of his creation over others and with this favor comes a responsibility and a test, to which one will be held responsible on the Day of Resurrection. Additionally, Allah has commanded his slaves to: “not wish for that with which We have favored some of you over others…” (Quran 2:253) So following the roles and responsibilities that the Lord of the universe has assigned to Humans, will maintain the balance reflected in the different systems around us: Water cycle, food cycle, reproduction system, respiratory system, planetary motion, etc.

Inorder to avoid deviant rulings such as promoting woman imams to lead men in prayer, in the name of reinterpreting the Quran and Sunnah to fit the “modern times”, we should rather look to the years of classical scholarship in the field of Islamic Jurisprudence with an open mind; and also promote capable scholars to deduce new rulings (when needed) utilizing a similar framework. On the other extreme, where we have new evidence that contradicts views held by early scholars or school of thought (madhab), we should not blindly hold on to the opinion of a certain Madhab.  Maintaining this balance will aid the Ummah in keeping the field of Fiqh alive to tackle modern day problems without compromising authentic implementation of Divine guidance.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_as_imams

[2] “Woman ‘Imam’ Held in Bahrain Mosque” Arab News. 2004-11-15. Retrieved 2008-06-09

[3] Leila Ahmed. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992. pp.159,161.

[4] Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips. Te Evolution of Fiqh. Pp. 82-83

[5] Hadith #881 of Sahih Muslim

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_as_imams

[7] Speech on Quranic Tafseer. Syed Iqbal Zaheer

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  1. October 3, 2010 at 11:19 am

    MashaAllah, you have nicely addressed the other extreme of following Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence).

    By the way, for further insight on these newly emerged extreme ideologies, have a look at the book “A critical analysis of Modernist and the Hadith Rejectors” by Sajid A. Kayum. It addresses a lot of issues in detail. Hope it turns out to be a good read.

    Here’s the link to download the book:
    http://www.qsep.com/books/modernists.html

    Jazaak Allahu khairan
    Zaffer Khan

    • October 11, 2010 at 1:54 am

      Jazak Allah Khair for the suggestions. Looks like an interesting read, InshaAllah.

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