Thursday, May 28, 2009

Women and Mosques

Today it seems to be accepted that women are not required to go to Friday prayer, and that in general it is better for women to pray at home. But what happened at the beginning of Islam? Did women pray alongside men at the first mosque in Madinah, in an area that was unsegregated? Did they pray all 5 prayers at the mosque, or just Friday prayers? Was the mosque more than just a place of prayer? What purpose did that first mosque serve the first Muslims?

In Imam Bukhari's Book of Friday, there is the following Hadith: "Do not forbid the mosques of Allah to the women of Allah." The Prophet somehow sensed that future generations of Muslim men would attempt to prevent women from praying at the mosque, and thus made it clear with this Hadith that women should always be allowed access to the mosque.

In her book "The Forgotten Queens of Islam", Fatima Mernissi shows how only 400 years after this Hadith, Muslim male scholars began casting doubt on whether it was necessary or even recommendable that women pray at the mosque. Ibn al-Jawzi mentions that if a woman fears disturbing men's minds, she should pray at home." What does that even mean? How would a woman disturb a man's mind? He gives the example of how if a male prays behind a row of women, his prayers are worthless. Aside from whether this is even true, shouldn't he then advise men to come on time, instead of advising women to stay home?

From this time on, many historians noted that most mosques were not frequented by many women. "We are certainly a long way from the Prophet's mosque, open to all, welcoming all those interested in Islam, including women" (Mernissi).

The female companions of the Prophet clearly did have access to the mosque. In fact Aisha's hut was connected to the mosque itself, showing how the Prophet did not feel the need to completely separate private from public, a need most modern Muslim men feel intensely. In Egypt in the early 1900s, feminists had to ask for the right to attend public prayer. How did things deteriorate to this extent for Muslim women, to the extent that we are not always granted access to the MOSQUE - a place of worship!

I will leave you with this quote by Mernissi: "The mosque was something other than a mere place of worship. It was a place where showing ignorance was permitted, where asking questions was encouraged, both activities that today are strongly prohibited."


Anonymous said...

Well then there's that hadith saying that praying at home is better for women.
Here let me post something I was reading regarding that in 'Speaking in God's Name' by Khaled Abou el Fadl: "These reports coexist with other traditions that assert that the mosque of the Prophet was full of rows of women lining up for prayers. At times, men arriving late for prayer would pray behind women - men would be in the front rows followed by women, followed by rows of men who arrived late. Yet, the prayers of the men who prayed behind the women were considered valid . . .Of course, reports of widespread attendance of prayers by women in mosques create a rather untenable situation. One would have to conclude that all these women ignored the Prophet's advice to pray in dark closets." (242).

From what I understand, at the beginning of Islam the mosque was more than a place of prayer. It was a community center.

Lisa said...

Things deteriorated because The Ummah (with men mostly as scholars at the time) decided to find a solution to men not lowering their gaze.

And that solution was to eliminate women...

It was much easier than the more difficult task of creating consequences and rules for men with wandering eyes.

And here we are. Does a man who doesn't lower his gaze face consequences? No. An imam will still perform his nikah someday....

I used to notice little things at my masjid in Austin. I saw two White girls visit for the first time, a few months before 9-11. They couldn't find a place to sit, because some homeless guy lived on the girl's side in this tiny space.

And there were 100 VERY dusty computers stacked up with barely any room to place a prayer mat. I never saw those sister's again. I always wonder if maybe after seeing 100 dusty computers, they said "gosh forget this, Islam is not for us."

On this issue, I would like to see a Reformation, because I believe that The Prophet and His companions would be sad.

Very good topic.

Anonymous said...

Lisa - I never thought of it that way - that since men aren't lowering their gaze women's presence is eliminated. That DOES make it easy on the men, doesn't it! And the Arab men especially I've seen are SO BAD at staring, it's like I want to go and smack them - I never get stared at by American/Canadian/European men! It's not polite!!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Aynur: this is the problem with Hadith: some openly conflict with each other. Bukhari sometimes quoted 2 or 3 Hadith on the same subject that openly disagreed with one other. I guess we have to think of what God and the Prophet (pbuh) would have wanted: women to pray in "dark closets (that made me laugh lol)" or in the mosque. The first mosque in Madinah was open to all, so I guess that's our answer. What do you think?

Lisa: that's a really good point: men no longer lower their gaze and so now women have to suffer. Why not target men and their behavioural problems instead of making women stay home or wear certain things or act in a certain way? You're 100% right that a man who doesn't lower his gaze doesn't face any consequences.

Aynur: there is seriously something wrong with Arab men and the way they look at women. Even in Makkah and Madinah it was bad! Imagine.
I never get this when I go to Europe. Funny how it's usually the Muslim Arab men who don't follow Islam properly, and yet claim to be the final judges on it.

Thanks for posting guys!

Umm Omar said...

Interesting post. Here in the US, women can go to the mosque as they please, but when I go to Egypt and my husband leaves to go pray thuhr or asr in the mosque, for example, and I want to tag along, he tells me, "women don't do that here." As for the hadith that says prayer for women is better at home-I understand that as meaning that women are more spiritual when they pray alone-This is definitely true in my case, especially since I've become a mom. After a long day with the kids, there's nothing more peaceful at the end of the day than finding a quiet corner in my home and praying. Since women were never forbidden from attending the mosque, how can that hadith be taken any other way?

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Umm Omar: yeah it's strange that women here don't go to mosques a lot. I love praying at home (like you said it's peaceful after a long day) but I also love praying in a mosque and meeting other Muslims etc, so I find it strange that women are sometimes not allowed to go. Grrr it gets so annoying sometimes that Muslims do the exact opposite of what the Prophet told us was good/right.
Good point about the Hadith...I don't see how else it could be interpreted.

Anonymous said...

There is another version of that praying at home hadith - "A version of this report purportedly transmitted from the Prophet by 'Abd Allah b. 'Umar, becomes more extreme. It states: "The prayer of a woman in their room is better than her prayer house and her prayer in a dark closet is better than her prayer in her room." The same message is then conveyed but this time through the involvement of a woman who reportedly goes to the Prophet to tell him that she loves to pray in the mosque with him. To this the Prophet responds that he knows that she loves to pray with him but gives her the same advice as above. As a result, the woman went home and prayed in the most isolated and the darkest area of her house until she died. The least one can observe about these traditions are their remarkable vindictiveness - the more removed and inaccessible a woman is, the better, and even the love of the Prophet cannot change that fact."

{4:82} Will they not then ponder on the Qur'an ? If it had been from other than Allah they would have found therein much incongruity.

Anonymous said...

My two cents:

In America I think it is very difficult for a convert to accept the segregation in the Mosques. Considering America's history of segregation of the races,Jim Crow laws that oppressed minorities, and our large civil rights movement for integration, I have found it second nature (instinct) for me to balk at segregation, considering all we have been through to end it..The Mosque segregations truly feel like a step back for me. It has kept me from attending Mosque. Maybe I could swallow it if the Mosques I have seen were not completely separated, small little rooms with speakers and no ability to see the Imam..
this is a struggle I am having at the moment, though I want to say I have attended Friday prayers at least once in a while... Possibly it will be different when I am living in a Muslim country? I hope.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Sarah Elizabeth: I feel exactly the way you do: I balk at any idea of segregation simply because to me it always means inequality. If women got the exact same mosque space/atmosphere/benefits as men did then fine, I could live with that. But that's rarely the case. Even in Makkah women do not have the same mosque benefits. Seriously, it makes no sense and is so frustrating!

Anonymous said...

Sarah Elizabeth - right on. I was trying to explain that to my hubby, but he doesn't get it. I don't see how he would really understand anyway, since he's never experienced it.
And as far as living in a Muslim country - I know that every country is different. For example, in Turkey the situation is pretty much the same as here in the US, except there are mosques like on every block. ;) Only the men go to pray Friday prayers or the other prayers in the mosque. So when I told him that there's no religious basis for how the complete gender segregation is now, at first he defended it saying that it's part of the religion. Now I think he accepts that it's not mandated anywhere, but still doesn't want women praying in the same room.