Salah: When in the Company of Men

“Do you want to lead?”
In a confused fluster, I declined with a “nah, you good.”

In the absence of an Imam, leading prayer can sometimes turn into a round of musical chairs. The endless shifting so that someone that is NOT you ends up in the middle or if it’s two of you that person ends up on the left, while you’ve managed to deliver a quick iqamah (call to prayer) and the “victory” of silence for the remainder of the salah.

On this particular occasion, a brother and I had missed the congregational prayer and we decided to pray together. As is the norm when “in the company of men” I made the assumption that he would lead. I was wrong. He turned to me and asked, “would you like to lead?” I was used to musical chairs with women but this was new. I wasn’t sure, so I told him, “nah you good. You got it.”

There were a couple of things that had me thrown after that. It was just the two of us. Where do I stand–next to him? It seemed strange to pray behind him. So, I settled for a hybrid–a reasonable distance behind and then to the right of him so as not to be directly behind him.

I felt silly. And sensing his equal uneasiness during the prayer, wondered if I should have just led.

The only male I’d ever led in prayer has been my little brother and even then he stood in front of me and I led from behind. Once he reached puberty he began to lead me in prayer, not that he had overnight surpassed me in knowledge, but in order to inshaAllah (God willing) prepare him to lead his family in salah in the future. He would make mistakes. I would correct him. He would learn. Then one day he was reciting surahs (chapters) I didn’t even know.

Usually, when I propose someone else lead, it is based on the assumption that they are more learned than me. But when put in a gendered context, it wasn’t about being learned at all, but simply the fact that he was more male than me. I was uncomfortable with the idea of leading a male in a prayer.

Where was this discomfort coming from and was it justified?

Women leading mixed gendered congregations in prayer is not a new thing. While the most recent memory of women leading salah may be Aminah Wadud, it has dated back to the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

The hadith of Umm Waraqah is used to support the legitimacy of female imams. It is reported on the authority of Abu Dawud that:

The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to visit her in her own home; he appointed a mu’adhin for her, and ordered her to lead the members of her household (in Salah).

Since the Qur’an is silent on the exclusivity of men leading prayer, this hadith appears to support the permissibility of women leading mixed gender salah, as Umm Waraqah’s household included men. Here, the word “dar” translated as “household” creates a degree of controversy. While some scholars argue that “dar” can go so far as to include Umm Waraqah’s whole town, other scholars have restricted it to only her immediate household. Most schools of thought have agreed that women can lead other women and those within their household (including men), but it stops there.

So, if the evidence does not pit against women leading salah, what’s the big deal? What’s my deal?

A variation of reasons are often thrown out–women leading can arouse the brothas (if this is the case, you probably need to get your nafs (soul) together, because that’s an issue); there’s ijma (consensus) across the schools–however, prior to the fourteenth century there were two schools, al-Thawri and ibn Jarir that permitted women to lead and men would stand to the side; and last, the possibility that Umm Waraqah’s case did not have general applicability, that she was exceptional in some sense.

These are perhaps legitimate reasons, but what’s really central here is the fear drawn forth when challenging a custom that lacks strong foundation. On Scholar of the House Dr. Abou El Fadl posted a thoughtful response to the question of women leading jum’ah:  

…the question is: Is there a specific exclusion against women when it comes to prayer? It seems to me that if there is such an exclusion the evidence in favor of this exclusion ought to be strong, if not unequivocally so. But the legal evidence in favor of such an exclusion is not very strong–it is more an issue of customary practice and male-consensus than direct textual evidence. Consequently, in my opinion, priority ought to be given to what is in the best interest of the community, and knowledge is the ultimate good. It seems to me that if a female possesses greater knowledge than a male–if a female is more capable of setting a good example in terms of how she recites the Qur’an and also in terms of teaching the community more about the Islamic faith, a female ought not be precluded from leading jumu’a simply on the grounds of being female.

Similarly, during the time of “prayer-gate” (dramatic I know) I was reading Jamillah Karim’s Women of the Nation (review here) and there was a passage from Imam WD Mohammed’s at the 1994 Chicago Sister’s Meeting:

I’m always challenging these so-called authorities who say they know everything about the hadith. They haven’t produced for me any evidence that the Prophet said women have to be in the back… [Women can] pray to the side. You can be as close to the speaker as the men are. [It’s] going to change, eventually….The world has been dominated by men and your justice is just coming. [You just] have to … put pressure on us.

I’m not sure how ready I am to include men in the musical chairs of salah and jum’ah but I do hope for more opportunities to parse out what is custom, what is Islamic, what are my own hesitations, and the points where all these things meet.


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