Woman leads prayer for Muslims in NYC
Defies tradition with mixed-sex service

By Lisa Anderson
Tribune national correspondent
Published March 19, 2005

NEW YORK -- Defying centuries of Muslim tradition and sparking a firestorm of controversy, a prominent female Islamic scholar led a mixed-sex congregation in prayers here Friday to assert the theological validity of female-led prayer and to challenge the widespread belief that only men may be imams.

Amina Wadud, an African-American professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of "Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text From a Woman's Perspective," also delivered the Friday sermon in a service conducted solely by women.

"I don't want to change Muslim mosques. I want to encourage the hearts of Muslims, both in their public, private and ritual affairs, to believe they are one and equal," said Wadud before the service. A small, extremely soft-spoken woman, she wore a purple paisley robe and veil and carried turquoise prayer beads.

About 60 women, most of them veiled, and 40 men attended the two-hour service at Synod House, affiliated with the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Almost as many media people were on hand, along with a substantial police presence and heightened security measures. After three mosques refused to be host to the event, a downtown art gallery stepped in, but it abruptly withdrew after reportedly receiving a bomb threat. The gallery manager declined to comment.

Only a handful of protesters showed up outside the event, and they conducted a counter prayer service on the sidewalk, led by a young American man who would only give his name as Nussruh.

"These people do not represent Islam," said the clearly furious Nussruh. "If this was an Islamic state, this woman would be hanged, she would be killed, she would be diced into pieces."

By contrast, the prayer service conducted by Wadud unfolded with a serenity that bordered on somnolence. Had anyone been expecting a searing sermon by a feminist firebrand, they would have been sorely disappointed. Instead, Wadud gently, but methodically, interpreted passages from the Koran, the Muslim holy book, to support her view that women always were intended to be equal to men and that nothing in the Koran denies women a leadership position in the faith.

Khabira Abdullah, a young woman who traveled from the suburbs to hear Wadud, left the service energized.

"I felt like it was very powerful, but not in the traditional way. The power came from the things she said and the verses of the Koran that spoke about the virtues of women. These are things I have never heard in a mosque," said Abdullah, 30, an administrative assistant.

But Samira Jaraba, a 30-year-old homemaker and mother of five, was disappointed. She said she didn't like the fact that the woman who sang the call to prayer did not wear a veil, and she found the proximity of men and women at the service uncomfortable.

1,000-year tradition cited

"You can't change the religion of 1,000 years in one day," the Palestinian-born Jaraba said.

Wadud's declared intention to lead the service generated fevered discussion among Islamic scholars, clashes between progressives and conservatives in Muslim online chat rooms and media coverage throughout the Islamic world.

Organizers of the service, the Progressive Muslim Union and the progressive Web site Muslim Wakeup!, said in a statement that "the event is not a protest. . . . This is a spiritual convening--nothing more, nothing less."

However, some opponents labeled it a publicity stunt, noting the publication last month of "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam," by Asra Nomani, one of the event's key organizers.

"Today, we are saying we are going to move from the back of the mosque to the front of the mosque," said Nomani before the service began.

A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Nomani stirred up her own controversy last year when she challenged the segregation of men and women at her hometown mosque in Morgantown, W.Va.

Before Friday's service the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America , a non-profit group of international scholars dedicated to interpreting Sharia for Muslims in the U.S., issued a fatwa, or ruling, against Wadud's leading a congregational prayer and those who attended the service.

"AMJA totally denounces such action, which is complete heresy," said the jurists on their Web site. "A unanimous consensus for the entire Ummah (Muslim community) in the east and west [is] that women can not lead the Friday prayer nor can they deliver the [sermon]. Whoever takes part in such a prayer, then his prayer is nullified, whether he was an Imam or a follower," they wrote.

Expert: Change is needed

Other Islamic law experts, such as Abdullahi An-Na'im, a professor of law at Emory University, said that there should be changes in Islamic principles concerning the role of women, but they must come through a process of consensus, "not in an ad hoc or arbitrary manner."

Of Wadud's service, he said, "In my view, this is the wrong thing to do, in the wrong way, time and place."

But not everyone among Muslim scholars agreed.

"The Koran itself doesn't address the issue of who leads prayer," said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a leading Islamic jurist and professor of law at UCLA. "The Prophet said the most learned should lead," he said, referring to Mohammed.

Calling Wadud's action "a counterjihad" on behalf of moderate Muslims, Abou El Fadl said, "It is my sincere belief that she is not committing a sin, but upholding the true teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him."

Abou El Fadl pointed out that there is no evidence that Mohammed intended to exclude women from leadership. Indeed, he said, the independence and knowledge of the Prophet's wives would suggest otherwise.

Abou El Fadl said that many traditional Islamic jurists rejected the broader role advocated for women by the Prophet. After Mohammed's death, they interpreted his words to exempt women from the obligation to attend Friday congregational prayers, subordinate them to men and deny them power to influence the faith, he said.