Some people are upset that M. Hasna Maznavi and Sana Muttalib together with other women organized the first mosque for Muslim women in America. These are upset because they viewed this a bida, an innovation. Some called it a deviation and some termed it a Western conspiracy to destroy Islam within.
The idea of a women's mosque is creating waves in Southern California and the discussion has begun about its relevance and usefulness. The women's mosque of America defines its objective in the following words:
"The Women's Mosque of America seeks to uplift the Muslim community by empowering women and girls through more direct access to Islamic scholarship and leadership opportunities. The Women's Mosque of America will provide a safe space for women to feel welcome, respected, and actively engaged within the Muslim Ummah. It will complement existing mosques, offering opportunities for women to grow, learn, and gain inspiration to spread throughout their respective communities."
On Friday January 30, 2015, the Women's Mosque of America provided a women-led Friday jumma'a services for women and children (including boys 12 and under). Currently their plan is to provide this service once a month in Southern California. In addition, the Women's Mosque of America plans to provide programming, events, and classes open to both men and women that will aim to increase community access to female Muslim scholars and female perspectives on Islamic knowledge and spirituality.
But this does not convince skeptics as they call such a move an innovation and deviation. Well if it is bida or deviation, then it was the Prophet of Islam and messenger of Allah, who himself introduced this some 6 years after five daily prayers were made obligatory in the 15th year of his mission and in the second year after the construction of what is now known as Msjid Quba and Masjid Nabavi. Based on the statements of Prophet Muhammad, it can be asserted that women's mosque was the third masjid in Medina.
It is reported in Masnad Abu Dawood, a book of ahadith (statement and actions of the Prophet) included in the six most authentic books on the subject by Sunni scholars of the subject that the Prophet gave one of his companions, Umm Waraqah, the permission to stay in Medina to lead prayers for her family and domestic helpers, men included, when she had gone to him offering nursing services to Muslims in the forthcoming Battle of Badr.
Umm Waraqah was a single woman and she stayed single until her death. She was very wealthy and resourceful. She was one of scribes of the Quran as well as an avid student of the Holy Scripture. Her knowledge of the Quran coupled with her piety was well known to the Prophet and his companions. She never married as she devoted her life to the study of the Quran. She recited the Quran beautifully and had memorized it.
It is reported that one day she came to the Prophet seeking permission to start a mosque in her home with proper facilities to have a call to the prayer as well as regular five daily prayers for her family, friends, and other relatives. The prophet blessed her and gave her the permission to lead the prayers. Thus she became the first known Imam in a mosque that she started in her home.
It is reported that Umma Waraqah continued leading the prayers during the Caliphate of the first and second Caliphs of Islam. Not much details are available about the activities carried out in her home-turned mosque. What is known is that she donated the entire property to the service of Islam.
There is no statement of the Prophet that prevents women from organizing their own mosques or leading five daily prayers or running their own religious institutions. Some people justify their opposition to a women's mosque based on an advice that the prophet told a few Muslim women to pray in the darkest corner of their homes. This was meant to advise those who had asked him based on their particular circumstances and this statement cannot be seen as a general principle because he is reported to have said: "don't prevent women from coming to the masajid" even if you like them to pray at home. The presence of women in mosque is a well-established practice in Islam.
Some people suggest that if women want to come to the mosque, they should accompany their husbands. This excludes unmarried women who do not have a male member to take care of them. In fact, the divine commandment to establish mosques is applicable to both men and women as both have been advised by Creator to establish prayer.
There is no statement of the Prophet that says that women cannot give a khutbah, (surmon). The prophet spelled out the rights and duties that everyone should observer while visiting mosques and they are similar for both in essence.
Another example that sheds light on the issue of equality of men and women is that some people suggest that women should not go to the mosque wearing perfume. However, there is a statement of the Prophet suggesting that he was extremely fond of perfume and he encouraged people to wear perfume in public places including houses of worship. This statement does not exclude women. How can one deny women from following this example of the Prophet? Those who say that fragrance wearing women would distract men in their worship perhaps lose the essence of the faith and place undue importance to the notion of male exclusivity. Islam is a faith not created to favor men or women and focus only on the level of iman (faith) of either of them. If some men are unable to control their carnal desires, then they have to work on their thoughts and actions rather than denying religious equality to others. To say that women do not have desires and feelings is defying the laws of the Creator.
Early Muslims understood the religious role of women in running their own mosques and in several countries, women have set up their own mosques.
Such mosques can be found particularly in the Chinese provinces of Henan, Shanxi and Hebel. Some countries beyond China also have women-only mosques, but they are rare.
At the end of the Ming Dynasty and early Qing Dynasty, Hui Chinese women had begun to form their own mosques. For religious reasons, the Hui Muslim communities started to cultivate more theological learning among the women. As a result, women graduates served as Imams of women's mosques.
There are separate places of worship as women-only mosques in China and other places of the world including, Uzbekistan, Maldives, Sudan, Amsterdam and Berlin. There were women only mosques in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Somalia until recently, but they were closed down under the pressure of certain religious groups. There is nothing in Islam's Holy Scriptures that prevent a woman from organizing mosques for women.
In fact, this is a welcome sign that Muslim women who have been marginalized in Muslim theological discourses for centuries are asserting themselves and carving a place for others who are still treated as second class citizens in none other than the house of Allah. The majority of women in the Muslim world are not allowed to visit mosques. In places, where they are allowed, there is no proper arrangements for them. In the houses of God, the treatment of women can be compared to how Rosa Park was treated, the African American hero of the civil rights movement who refused to go to the back seat because white men and women did not want blacks to occupy front rows. Unfortunately, this has been justified in the name of Prophet and perpetuated continuously. This is a move that those Muslim men who believe in the divine wisdom in creating both men and women with dignity and equality should wholeheartedly support. Additionally they should participate in the efforts to have a physical site owned by Muslims to serve Muslim women and others through the services led and run by women. In fact the project should be replicated throughout the country where women can produce their own scholars and speakers.
We are willing to accept the idea of a woman exclusive city, a women exclusive university or a gym or a swimming pool or a departmental store. Why cannot we reconcile with the idea of women running their own religious institutions including mosques.
Dr. Aslam Abdullah is editor in chief of the weekly Muslim Observer and director of the Islamic Society of Nevada.
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