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Women Imams

Discussion Paper
Halima Krausen, Summer 2005
On the occasion of the Friday service in New York on March 18 led by Dr. Amina Wadud and the subsequent
emotionally charged public debate I was repeatedly asked for my views on the subject. I think, however, that although it
initially sounds rather easy, it is, in fact, more complicated than it seems. I would therefore like to give some food for
thought for the ongoing discussion rather than presenting a position of my own.
First of all, it is not at all clear what we are talking about. Far from being a well-defined "rank", the word "imm" is
used with a wide range of different meanings. In current Sunni usage it normally refers to the leader of a particular
prayer or the regular leader of prayers in a community or the head of a mosque; besides, it is used as an honorary title
for an eminent scholar, e.g. Imm Abu Hanfa and other founders of Muslim schools of law or Imm al-Ghazzli and
others who revived Muslim tradition at a specific point in history. At the beginning of the 'Abbassid era, the caliph was
referred to as the imm. In current Shi'ah usage, the immah is considered a continuation of guidance after the period of
prophecy was concluded, the imm being both a political and a spiritual leader of the community, a teacher of esoteric
knowledge and the authority for interpreting the Qur'an. In the Ja'fari tradition, this refers specifically to a line of twelve
personalities in eleven generations from the family of the Prophet Muhammad, the last of them being expected to come
back as the eschatological Imm Mahdi. Ismaili tradition has more esoteric teachings, considering the immah both an
hereditary function and a cosmic principle. The Kharijites use the term for a political leader who may be elected or
deposed, referring to the Prophet's statement, "Choose the best among you for a leader (imm)." In the Qur'an, the word
is used in a much more basic sense, referring to a leading example like Abraham (Surah 2:124) or the judges of the
Children of Israel (Surah 32:23-24) or the potential of righteous people in general (Surah 25:74; 28:4-5), but also to
misleading examples like Pharaoh and the likes of him who lead "to the Fire" (Surah 28:39-41). Coming from the root
amma, proceed, lead, be in front, the word imm is related to the word umm, mother and, beyond the biological
meaning, source, foundation, essence, matrix.
The second seemingly obscure point in the current debate is the methodology. Very often both supporters and critics of
that Friday service in New York jump to conclusions either from individual traditions since there is no direct reference
to the question in the Qur'an or from assumed principles without exploring the background or considering the context.
One of the most frequent arguments is that "This has never happened or considered possible before, consequently it
should not happen." There is, in fact, the methodological principle of istishb, the continuation of a legal ruling as long
as the conditions remain the same, designed to prevent legal and social experiments for their own sake, demanding a
compelling reason for any change and the more so when it comes to acts of worship ('ibdt). Especially in the Sunni
schools of law, an unspoken overemphasis on this principle, reinforced by a doctrine that supposedly "the gates of
ijtihd (development and updating of Islamic law) have been closed", has often led to a legal inflexibility while the
voices that not only demanded the revival of ijtihd but also worked towards reforms in various ways, like Ibn Taimiya
(d. 1328), Shah Waliullh (d. 1762), Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) and many others, have never been silent. Even in
matters of worship adjustments have been made: while we take it for granted that we follow the Prophetic example e.g.
in ritual prayer (and, in principle, undoubtedly do so), we in fact follow standardized instructions by Muslim scholars of
the formative period details of which can vary from one school of law to another, giving in to the urge to simplify these
differences at least in the diaspora for the sake of Muslim unity rather than utilizing the dynamics they offer for a
deepening of our spiritual and cultural wealth. Pointing out the ontological equality of men and women and the equal
terms used for their practical and spiritual responsibility in the Qur'an (e.g. Surah 4:1, 33:35, 9:71 etc.), the advocates of
change, on the other hand, often impatiently try to evade the development of Muslim tradition in the past and demand
immediate reforms for justice and equality to be implemented right here and now. Important tools like the consideration
of public interest (istislh) and equity (istihsn) that demand a view of the wider context, legal and customary practice
('urf and 'dah) that have a role in people's feeling of identity and continuity and even a disciplined qiys (deduction by
analogy) have been widely sidelined and forgotten in the current discourse, and ijm' (consensus) is often confused with
a majority opinion.
As for the contents of the discussion itself, there are several interconnected issues involved: 1) women leading public
ritual prayers for men and women, 2) women preaching, particularly Friday sermons, and 3) women's situation in
Muslim social, intellectual and spiritual life in general.
1) Women Leading Ritual Prayers
There is no formal clerical hierarchy in Islam. Nevertheless, in classical fiqh, matters of priority in leading
congregational prayers have often been decided not only according to standards of knowledge, quality of the recitation
or piety but considerations of social hierarchy (being the ruler or his deputy, lineage, age, family status etc.) were also

given a role. Within the patriarchal structures prevalent in the greater part of the Muslim world in those days, the idea of
a woman leading public ritual prayers would have been perceived as rather strange. According to most schools of law,
women can lead women's prayers. There is a tendency to discourage women from doing so and, in the case of the
Mliki school, to prohibit it, apparently influenced by a hadth according to which "a people that entrusts its affairs to a
woman will not prosper", that is often used in arguments against women in leadership positions but that neither fulfils
the criteria of authenticity nor does it seem to harmonize with the image of the Queen of Sheba in the Qur'an and the
principle that men and women, as mutual friends and allies (awliy'), "enjoin what is good and prohibit what is evil"
(Surah 9:71). Meanwhile there are confirmed reports saying that the Prophet's wives did lead women's prayers including
particulars like the fact that, in these cases, the imm stood in the prayer line with the other women. This was then
formalized as a rule. One might, however, ask questions about the context and whether this is the only possible
conclusion. The argument used frequently by those who try to discourage the practice is that the Prophet's wives were
more knowledgeable and stable in character than the women of later generations so the reports cannot be considered
normative. But this view is not shared by most of the scholars who based their decisions on these precedents. The
question why the woman imm is supposed to stand in the prayer line rather than in front of it is sometimes explained
with the statement that "a woman's body is private", therefore it should not be exposed, or with a generalizing reference
to the widespread practice that women stand behind the men in prayer. But when and where did these prayers take
place? According to what we understand from a number of reports, the houses of the Prophet's wives, attached to the
mosque in Madinah, were hardly big enough for several women to pray there together or at least to have extra space for
the imm to stand in front of them (in which case even a male imm leading men would stand in the middle of the
prayer line) and the same probably applies to the homes of other women, especially poor ones, they might have gone to
visit. Alternatively, they might have prayed in the mosque like any other group that came in from some business after
the regular congregational prayer was over and while other activities were going on - after all, the mosque was a
community centre - and the women might not have felt like giving a demonstration. Since we lack these circumstances,
of course it is speculation, but so is the assumption that this was done because it is to be considered normative.
One conclusion from women leading women's only prayers might be to have segregated prayer meetings as a rule rather
than the exception and even set up women only mosques. No, this is not the brainchild of a feminist Western mind but is
being practiced successfully in Central Asia and some other places in the world, women there being specifically trained
not only to lead prayers and preach sermons but to teach and counsel women and children. The problem is not one that
can formally be solved by referring to texts or precedents but a question of istislh: does this affect the Muslim
community in a positive way by raising women's motivation and level of knowledge, promoting the religious education
of the following generations or in a negative way by splitting an already segregated society even more, eventually
creating two completely separate intellectual and spiritual worlds?
Far from knowing all debates on this subject that have taken part in the past, we only have access to what has been
written down and preserved. There are, in fact, scholars who did not see anything wrong with women leading even
mixed ritual prayers, among them Abu Thawr al-Kalbi (d. 876), Abu Isma'il al-Muzani (d. 879), al-Isfahani (d. 884), the
founder of the Zhirite school, at-Tabari (d. 923), and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). We do not have many details about their
arguments but on the other hand there is no news that they raised a public outcry with their position in their time or
were condemned by their contemporary collegues. This might have been because the cases they mentioned were
considered exceptions, e.g. that a woman may lead Tarawh prayers in the month of Ramadan if there is no man who
knows the Quran by heart, or the prayers of her husband, children and slaves if she is the most knowledgeable of them.
One might argue that Tarawh prayers are not obligatory and a prayer with one's own family does not constitute a public
situation, and exceptions may not suddenly be converted into rules. On the other hand, one might also understand these
exceptions as confirming the theory that social reasons rather than theological or fundamental ones were decisive in
these rulings.
In the current debate, reference is often made to the precedent of Umm Waraqa. From various complementary versions
of her story, transmitted by Ibn Sa'd (d. 845), Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855), Abu Dawud (d. 888) and Baihaqi (d. 1077) we
learn that she was one of the women who had learned the Qur'an by heart and was told by the Prophet to be the imm
for the members of her household (ahl drih). She had a mu'azzin, and she continued to fulfil this task until she was
murdered in the time of the Caliph 'Umar. In the current debate, critics tried to make sure to find flaws in one or the
other isnd (chain of transmitters) that could question the authenticity while the example has been used uncritically as a
proof text to generally demand equal rights for women to lead public prayers. In between the extreme positions there is
a debate on who were the members of her household and whether the situation was a private or a public one. Like the
term imm, the word dr can mean a number of things ranging from a person's home to vast regions like the classical
Dr al-Islm (Islamic jurisdiction). From the fact that Umm Waraqa was murdered by a male and a female slave of hers
and no other details of her family are mentioned, the conclusion is sometimes made that her task extended only over
these two people as well as possibly the mu'azzin (one might speculate that, since her name is Umm Waraqa, she must
have a son called Waraqa but this is nowhere confirmed). If this were the case, however, the narrator would have used
the word bayt (literally "house", used for the home of a nuclear family) rather than dr, the housing area for an extended
family consisting at least of a number of small family homes surrounding a courtyard. In the time of the Prophet,
individuals were depending on the protection of their clan or tribe - living alone with just a few servants was almost

impossible even for men and would have earned anyone the reputation of a hermit that, in the case of Umm Waraqa,
would not have gone unmentioned in the reports. Madinah, in those days, was not an organized connected city but an
accumulation of clustered village-like living areas for various clans and tribes spread over an area much wider than the
area of present-day Madinah and with each their own clan mosque in addition to the central Mosque of the Prophet.
This would mean that Umm Waraqa led everyday prayers for quite a number of male and female members of her
extended family as well as slaves and guests. Since all this happened long before the Muslim schools of law formulated
rules for the Friday service, one might wonder whether it was held in the local mosques as well or everyone went to the
Prophet's mosque for that purpose, and what was Umm Waraqa's role in this.
But there are more open questions. What was the Prophet's objective in appointing Umm Waraqa the imm of her
household? As a woman from the Ansr, she would hardly be the only one in her clan who was able to fulfil that task at
all, therefore it would hardly be an emergency that the Prophet tried to alleviate. If she was the most knowledgeable
one, the Prophet, following the principle of choosing the most knowledgeable person to lead prayers, may have wanted
to create some normality regarding women in that role. Actions depend on their intentions, especially when they are the
foundation for further conclusions. Keeping in mind the fact that the Prophet was sent "as a mercy for the worlds"
(Surah 21:107) and contemplating his character and his behaviour especially with women might give us more insight
into his attitude that could shed some light on the interpretation of various traditons.
One important point must be clarified: even with all apparent similarities, the issue is not the same as the debate around
women priesthood e.g. in the Catholic church. There is no priesthood in Islam. A priest is Christ's (or God's)
representative for the community. According to the Qur'an, human beings, men and women, are God's trustees on earth,
sharing their responsibility for their society and creation. An imm is a leader of the community on the way to God in
various ways. One of them can be ritual prayer. If a woman is accepted in the position of an imm in the sense of being
a teacher, counsellor and judge, she may still delegate the leading of ritual prayers just as a man in the same position if
that seems appropriate. This could be a practical solution in cases where the men of her community do not prove mature
2) Women Preaching, Particularly Friday Sermons
Regarding the Friday sermon there are two different views. According to one, it is considered a component of the Friday
prayer itself, the two parts of it replacing two units (rak't) of the prayer. In this case it would be obvious that the same
person should perform both and the matter should be discussed together with the issue of leading ritual prayers. The
other view, based on the fact that you do not make up for a missed sermon the way you have to make up for missed
prayer units, is that it is different from ritual prayer, constituting an element of teaching, remembrance and supplication
in the service. In this case it would have to be discussed together with other issues of women teaching and making
supplications in public.
There is, in fact, a lot of material on women in Muslim history who were teachers and spiritual guides for the
community, starting with Mothers of the Faithful like Aisha, Hafsa and Umm Salama without whom we would lack a
substatial part of the souces that Islamic law and theology are based on. The widespread assumption that their public
appearance ended with the institution of the veil or curtain (hijb) is disproved by the numerous reports of their
activities afterwards and after the Prophet's death for the rest of their lives. The Prophet's granddaughter Zaynab was
well known as a teacher, commentator of the Qur'an and public speaker to the extent that she was dubbed
"Representative of the Imm" (i.e. her brother Hussayn). Other examples for famous women scholars and teachers are
Nafisa (d. 825) who shared knowledge and spiritual activities with ash-Shfi'i, the founder of one of the schools af law,
the mystic Rbi'a al-Adawya (d. 801) who lived as a hermit in Baghdad and taught male and female students including
well-known scholars like Sufyn ath-Thawri, having a considerable influence on Muslim mystical tradition, and
numerous other women who, in later centuries, taught various branches of theology and law at important colleges and
study centres in Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem and other places throughout the Muslim world. Male scholars like Ibn
al-'Arabi (d. 1240) mention male and female teachers with the same respect, and there was cooperation between male
and female students even when society otherwise was segregated. There do not seem to be examples for women
preaching Friday sermons but there are many women who became famous as preachers on other occasions. We only
have to look up the classical collections of biographies.
We would, however, deceive ourselves if we left it at that, ignoring the numerous statements about the seductiveness of
women's voices, woman's salvation depending on her husband's satisfaction, women's defective memory and intellect,
women causing temptation and disturbance (fitnah) and the like based on Qur'anic statements taken out of context,
traditions or general assumptions. I am actually surprised at the relative absence of these arguments in the current
debate, wondering if this is a sign for a development towards a more rational approch or just an attempt at political
correctness. We have to deal with a dichotomy that eventually created a social and spiritual reality in today's Muslim
world that is rather disorienting. Young people, both boys and girls, grow up with conflicting messages, not just
between Islamic and "Western" values but between idealistic Qur'anic ideas of social justice in a society where men and

women "are mutual friends and allies, enjoining what is good and prohibiting what is evil" (Surah 9:71) and taking on
responsibility for this world, teachings of sincerity, wisdom and respect and highly motivating stories of scholarly and
heroic men and women from the time of the Prophet and the early generations on one side and derogative statements,
discriminating assumptions, frequently illogical obstacles, taboos and demands as well as an amazing lack of role
models (other than possibly the idealized figure of the Prophet Muhammad) on the other, often without any guidance to
process and contextualize these impressions. Is that what lies at the bottom of our current inability to share visions and
handle the dynamics of disagreement?
In the greater part of the Muslim word, Friday services normally are an androcentric matter with men preaching to men
in the fist place, sometimes exclusively where women are not expected to attend. Women participants feel obliged to
listen but do not always find that due attention is given to their concerns and are not directly part of the process that
might be triggered by any food for thought presented in the sermon. Half of the community seems to be left out of its
thought process - is that what made us lose our cultural creativity? One might argue that even most men listen only out
of a sense of duty and hardly ever give any feedback even to the preacher. If this is the case, there is something deeply
wrong, be it that the preacher does not really relate to the audience or that the community is not quite aware of the
significance of the Friday service both as a means of remembrance and learning and in its social dimension.
Nevertheless some impulses will always take effect one way or the other as long as the Friday service takes place at all,
but mainly among the men. One might argue that women have other alternatives. Well, there are schools, universities,
women's organizations, coffee parties, and not to forget the neighbourly grapevine, but they are no real equivalent to an
institution that combines spiritual, intellectual and social aspects in such a unique way as the Friday service. The
aforementioned women's mosques might offer that to some extent, but a completely segregated system would hardly be
conductive to a constructive dialogue between male and female half of society that is essential for the development of
all. One might argue that men and women are different and have complementary roles. If this is the case, it would be the
more important to take the other perspective seriously, to include it into the discourse and to give it a voice. The way
things are currently handled, a vast educational potential is wasted in the name of religious tradition.
Among the alternatives that I came across are solutions like women theologians, in order to make their knowledge
accessible to a wider public, writing Friday sermons that were then presented by the preacher. It should then be a matter
of honour to mention the autor in order to do justice to her efforts and scholarship but unfortunately this does not always
happen. Another possibility is given in places where the sermon (khutbah) is considered part of the ritual prayer and
therefore held in Arabic while the community speaks a different language: a pre-khutbah talk is then given in the
vernacular after the first call to prayer that contains elements of teaching, reflection and supplication. I do occasionally
come across women who give such a pre-khutba talks, surprisingly in rather conservative communities. Perhaps this is a
way to open up possibilities for a meaningful participation.
Sometimes I still come across people who believe that women are not capable to do all these things. Well, women of
other religions are capable to do them. And I know of an increasing number of Muslim women scholars who are invited
to speak in churches and synagogues in the framework of interfaith dialogue and to take the Muslim part in
multireligious prayers for peace. Are we waiting for a time when Muslim women are more familiar with speaking in a
church or synagogue than with speaking in a mosque?
3) Women's Situation in Muslim Social, Intellectual and Spiritual Life
The debate on women imms is symptomatic. What we actually need is a critical evaluation of the situation itself that is
challenging the Muslim ummah.
First of all, beyond all stereotypes, there is no such thing as "woman's position in Muslim society". Alongside the
different possibilities for women in matters of worship depending on factors like the school of law and the local custom,
there are, between Morocco and Indonesia and between Central Asia and Subsaharan Africa, different climatic and
certainly not always just economic and political conditions, historical experiences as well as social and family structures
ranging from an expressedly patriarchal system to matrilineal structures with all shades in between, all rooted in the
same Qur'anic and prophetic sources and all contributing to a rich cultural variety. There is the amazing contradiction
between the high percentage of women students at the universities in Muslim countries and the high rate of illiteracy
among women in the same countries, between verbal expressions of high esteem for women and the practical
difficulties when confronted with the need for more weight for women in decisionmaking, between the lip-service paid
to women's tenderness and the appalling ugliness of women's rooms in many mosques and the harsh remarks about
women's obedience to their husbands. In my own everyday work with Muslims in Europe I come across people from
various Arab countries, many of them students or refugees with different educational backgrounds and political
attitudes, often insisting on a strict segregation that, on the other hand, is not always a disadvantage because it often
facilitates initiative and solidarity among women; I am sometimes surprised at the support for daughters in their efforts
to study in some families and the attempts at restricting and controlling them in others. There are Turkish migrant
workers, often marked by clear rural role expectations while the next generation is working through a maze of values

and norms between the cultures in a dramatic struggle for their identity. There are Iranian and Afghan men and women,
many of them college-educated or businessmen and with different but determined attitudes regarding the political
development back home. There are men and women from the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia, East and West Africa and
the Balkans with each their languages and cultures. There are men and women from culturally and religiously mixed
families and converts with sometimes remarkable biographies. This is not the place, though, to analyze the details of all
the possibilities that are given to these men and women and the obstacles that are put in their way of unfolding and
utilizing their potential. Besides, I am not a sociologist.
Many Muslims, especially women, are afraid. They are afraid of differences leading to a fragmentation of the
community, to a point where they are unable to deal with or even face contradictions and disagreement, of a breakdown
of family life resulting in material and emotional insecurity and isolation, of spiritual alienation and the loss of faith in a
maze of material challenges and alternative concepts and values that affect their feeling of identity. Fear, unlike awe,
conscienteousness and a sense of responsibility, can paralyze, discourage and lead to a vicious circle when the state of
affairs is perceived as a punishment, an irrational attachment to seemingly infallible human authorities are relied on and
God's mercy, beauty and generosity are lost sight of.
Many Muslims, especially women, are angry. Angry at stereotypes from outside and ignorance and superstition within
the community to which they are constantly challenged to react, leaving hardly any time for introspection and
constructive thinking. Angry for feeling cheated out of their spiritual and cultural heritage and at the lack of possibilities
to work on an up-to-date interpretation and implementation of values taught by revelation for the benefit of all
humankind. Angry at themselves for feeling helpless when facing global injustice and injustice perpetrated in the name
of religion. Anger at double standards and insincerity. According to al-Ghazzli, anger is justified if it consists of a wellcontrolled urge to bring about changes for the better while intense anger can work on one's perception like a drug,
upsetting one's judgement for what is appropriate.
Looking at the future, we need clarity about our aims and objectives and our criteria for judgement. Are we to obey
uncritically like slaves anything that we are told in the imperative without asking for the meaning, or are we to work
towards Qur'anic ideals of men and women as partners (Surah 9:71) with equal moral values and religious obligations
(Surah 33:35) building up a society of justice, finding ways to fulfil that complicated task by using our minds and hearts
and serving our Creator as worthy trustees? Are we to deprive ourselves and each other of the potential provided by our
intellect because we cannot grasp God's secrets anyway, or do we trust both the Qur'anic injunction to research and
reflect and God's promise to reward our sincere efforts and to forgive us in case we make mistakes? Are we to impose
uniform thoughts and patterns of behaviour on ourselves and others in an attempt to stand together as a solid but lifeless
block, or are we to enjoy the diversity of our branches and their fruits, confident of the One Source that brought us forth
and preserves us? Are we to stand helplessly and confused facing innumerable commandments and prohibitions like an
unsorted jigsaw puzzle, or do we explore the principles of justice, equality and human responsibility taught by the
Qur'an and the prophetic example and use them as a hermeneutical reference point to develop a vision for the future that
we then can take meaningful steps to implement?
And on a somewhat different level: are we to give priority to women's education and the improvement of their situation
in society in general and in the Muslim community in particular or to push for symbolic actions that might be expected
to have an influence on the situation, or are there even other ways open to change things for the better?
On the whole, there are currently far more open questions than clear answers. Ijtihd is overdue in many other fields
and there are many legal rules that have moved away from the spirit of the Qur'an while apparently based on fragments
of the text. Besides, the doctrine that Muhammad was the final messenger is not tantamount to a static situation but
rather the starting point for a more mature way of contributing to the wellbeing of human society.
I certainly do not want to be misunderstood as expressing any disrespect to any scholars of the past. Whatever their
position, they struggled hard not to just follow isolated statements or hasty conclusions from precedents but to work
systematically within the framework of their particlar methodology, experience and society. In the same spirit, however,
we may not follow them blindly but should have the courage to ask questions of our own, to study these matters
conscienteously and come to conclusions that make sense in our own time and age.