Can Women Be Imams?
Following the Friday prayers led by Dr Amina Wadud in New York on 18th March and the emotional public debate to which that event led, I have repeatedly been asked for my view on the matter. I believe the issue may seem simple, but is more complicated than it appears. So I'd like to contribute a few ideas to the discussion, rather than put forward a clear opinion.
The first point to make is that it's absolutely unclear what we're talking about. Far from defining a clear "rank," the term "Imâm" is used for a wide spectrum of different meanings.
The word Imâm is related to the word umm, "mother"
In the Koran, the word is used in a more fundamental way and refers to leading exemplary figures like Abraham (Sura 2:124) or the judges of the Children of Israel (Sura 32:23-24) or the potential of all upright people in general (Sura 25:74; 28:4-5); but it can also refer misleadingly to characters like Pharaoh and others like him, who lead one "to the fire" (Sura 28:39-41).
The word Imâm stems from the root "amma" – move forward, lead, be in front – and is related to the word "umm" – mother – which goes beyond the biological aspect towards the meaning "Source, basis, being."
The second apparently unclear point in the current debate is one of methodology. Both supporters and critics of the Friday prayers in New York draw hasty conclusions either from specific traditions (since the Koran itself doesn't deal with the issue directly) or from assumed principles, without examining their background or taking account of their context.
"The gates of legal innovation are closed"
One of the most frequent arguments is that "this has never happened before and has never been considered possible in the past, and therefore should never happen."
There is indeed a methodological principle called Istishâb – the extension of a legal ruling – which applies in cases where the original conditions for the ruling remain the same. This prevents legal and social experiments from being carried out for their own sake, and requires urgent reasons for change, especially regarding prayers and services ('Ibâdât).
This principle has been tacitly overemphasised in Sunni schools of legal thought, and this overemphasis has been strengthened by the doctrine that allegedly "the gates of Ijtihâd (Islamic legal innovation) are closed" – a view which has often led to legal inflexibility.
The ontological equality of man and woman in the Koran
But there have been changes even in liturgical matters: while we assume that we are following the example of the prophet in such matters as ritual prayer (which in principle we no doubt do), in fact we follow the standardised instructions of Muslim teachers from the formative period of Islam, whose details can vary from one school to another. And at least in the diaspora, we tend to feel the need to simplify even those differences for the sake of Muslim unity, rather than to use the dynamic which they offer as a way of deepening the riches of our spiritual and cultural life.
On the other hand, the supporters of change cite the ontological equality of man and woman in the Koran and the fact that the same terms are used to refer to their practical and spiritual responsibilities (e.g. Sura 4:1, 33:35, 9:71 etc.). They overlook impatiently the development of Islamic tradition in the past and demand immediate reform in the direction of justice and equality here and now.
Islam knows no hierarchy of office. All the same, in the classical Fiqh, questions of priority regarding who should lead communal prayers were often not decided solely on the basis of knowledge, skill in recitation or piety. Issues of social hierarchy also played a role.
Women may lead prayers – for women
Within the patriarchal structures which ruled in the largest part of the Muslim world at that time, the idea that a woman might lead public prayer would have been seen as very strange.
Most schools of law consider that women can lead prayers for women. There are tendencies which discourage woman from doing so, and, in the case of Mâlikite school, prohibit them from doing so, evidently on the basis of a Hadîth according to which "a people which entrusts its matters to a woman can never win success."
It's an argument which is often called upon to support opposition to women holding positions of leadership, but it's an argument which neither fulfils the necessary criteria of authenticity, nor can it be brought to conform to the image of the Queen of Sheba as presented in the Koran, nor does it conform to the principle that men and women, as mutual friends and allies (Awliyâ'), "should offer each other good and deny each other evil" (Sura 9:71).
At the same time there are confirmed reports that the wives of the prophet certainly led prayers for women, which are verified by details such as that the (female) Imâm stood in the rows together with the other women.
Some scholars said women may lead mixed prayers
We are far from knowing all the debates of the past on this subject. We only have access to that which was recorded in writing and has been preserved. Indeed there were scholars who had nothing against women leading even mixed ritual prayer, among them Abu Thawr al-Kalbi (died 876), Abu Isma'il al-Muzani (died 879), al-Isfahani (died 884), the founder of the Zâhirite school, at-Tabari (died 923), or Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328).
We don't know many details of the arguments they used, but we also have no evidence that their positions called forth a storm of protest in their time or that they were condemned by their contemporaries. This could be because the cases they mentioned were regarded as exceptional (for example, that a woman may lead the Tarawîh prayers during the month of Ramadan when no man is available who knows the Koran by heart, or that a woman may lead her husband, their children and their slaves when she is the most learned of them).
One could argue that the Tarawîh prayers are not obligatory and that prayers with the family are not public, and that one should not transform exceptions into rules. On the other hand, one could understand such exceptions as confirmation of the theory that it's not reasons of theology or principle, but social reasons which are decisive in these rulings.
Between prejudiced doubt and uncritical approval
The case of Umm Waraqa is often given as a precedent in the current debate. In the various versions of her story, which all add a bit to the picture, we learn that she was one of the women who knew the Koran by heart, and that the Prophet called on her to be the Imâm of the members of her household (Ahl Dârihâ).
Critics have tried to prove that there are weak points in one or other of the Isnâd (chains of transmission) which put the authenticity of the tradition into doubt. On the other hand, the example is used uncritically to back the demand for equal rights for women in leading public prayers.
Between these extreme positions, a debate is taking place as to who the members of her household were and whether the situation was a private or a public one.
A development towards a more rational approach?
There seem to be no examples of women who led Friday prayers, but there were many women who became famous as preachers on other occasions. We only have to look in the classical collections of biographies to find them.
But we would be deceiving ourselves if we left it at that and simply ignored the many statements which say, for example, that the voice of women is seductive, that the welfare of a woman is dependent on the satisfaction of her husband, that a woman's memory and intellect are inferior, or that women cause temptation and disturbance (Fitnah). These views come from Koran verses taken out of context, traditions and general assumptions.
In fact I'm surprised at the fact that such arguments are scarcely to be found in the current debate, and I ask myself if this is a sign of a development towards a more rational approach to the issue, or whether it is merely an attempt to be politically correct.
Islam's rich cultural variety
The debate over the role of the woman as Imâm is symptomatic. What we really need is a critical evaluation of the situation as required by the Muslim Ummah.
To start with, aside from the stereotypes, there isn't anything like "the position of woman in Muslim society." Parallel to the various possibilities for women in the service which are dependent on the views of specific schools of law and local customs, there are, between Morocco and Indonesia, between Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, varied climatic and economic and political conditions (which, to be sure, may not necessarily be just), historical experiences, and social and family structures, varying from a clearly patriarchal system to matrilineal structures with every shading in between. All are rooted in the same Koranic and prophetic sources and all make their own contribution to a rich cultural variety.
There's an astonishing contradiction between the high proportion of women students at universities in Muslim countries and the high proportion of illiterate women in the same countries, between the expression of high regard for women and the practical difficulties put in the way of giving women a bigger say in decision making processes, between the lip service paid to the delicacy of women and the off-putting ugliness of the women's areas in many mosques or the rough comments on the duty of obedience of a women towards her husband.
In my own daily work with Muslims in Europe, I meet people from different Arab countries, many of them students or refugees with different backgrounds as far as their education and political attitudes are concerned. Many of them insist on strict separation of the sexes, which may not always be a disadvantage, since it often encourages initiative and solidarity among women.
Does difference necessarily lead to fragmentation?
I am often surprised by the support given to daughters who want to study, and by the attempts in other families to restrict and control their daughters. There are Turkish migrants who are often strongly influenced by the clear role expectations of their rural background, while the next generation works its way through a labyrinth of values and norms between the cultures as they wrestle with their identity.
Many Muslims, especially women, are frightened. They are frightened of difference: they fear it may lead to the fragmentation of their society, to such an extent that they become incapable of dealing with contradictions and differences of opinion.
Many Muslims, especially women, are angry – angry about stereotypes from outside and ignorance and superstition inside the community to which they are repeatedly challenged to react. This gives them scarcely any time for constructive thought. They are angry, because they feel themselves cheated of their spiritual and cultural inheritance, and they are angry about the lack of any possibility of working at the development of a contemporary interpretation and application of the values they hold.
What are our options?
Should we, like uncritical slaves, obey everything which is declared in the tone of command, without questioning the sense of it? Or should we work towards the Koranic ideal under which men and women are partners (Sura 9:71), with the same moral values and religious duties (Sura 33:35) and the same duty to work together to build a just society?
And on another level: should we make women's education and the improvement of women's position in society into a priority, both in the general society and in the Muslim community in particular? Or should we push forward with symbolic actions from which one might expect that they will have an influence on the situation? Or are there perhaps yet other ways to improve things?
Currently there are more questions than answers. Ijtihâd is necessary in many areas, and there are many legal rules which have moved away from the spirit of the Koran, even if they are founded on some fragment of the text.
Aside from that, the teaching that Mohammed is the final messenger of God is not the same as saying that the situation of the past must never change. It's much more the starting point for a more mature way of contributing to the welfare of human society.
I certainly don't want to be misunderstood as meaning that I lack respect for any of the scholars of the past. Whatever their position, they have tried hard not simply to follow isolated statements or hasty conclusions from precedent, but to work systematically within the framework of their respective methodology, experience and society.
In the same spirit, we should not follow them blindly. We should have the courage to ask our own questions, to study the matter conscientiously and to reach conclusions which make sense in our times.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: Michael Lawton
Halima Krausen is a Muslim scholar and lecturer for the Initiative for Islamic Studies in Hamburg, Germany.