Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was a champion of women’s rights. The Prophet was surrounded by women throughout his life; he greatly respected them and considered them equal to men. His first wife Khadija, with whom he lived in a monogamous marriage for 25 years, until her death, was a strong, independent, wealthy businesswoman 15 years his senior. Khadija was the first person to accept Islam as her religion and way of life.
During the life of the Prophet, “men and women participated fully…in the dynamic community of believers that he established,” explains Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed. Prophet Muhammad strove to implement the Quranic ideals of dignity and equality of all human beings. Therefore, he did not separate men and women at the mosque by using curtains, walls, partitions, and, much less, by banning women from the mosque or banishing them to separate floors or rooms, as happens frequently today.
There is considerable evidence in the books of Hadith that substantiate the claim that segregation of women did not exist during the time of the Prophet (PBUH). A Hadith reported in the Book of Muslim, for instance, states that Umm Hisham, daughter of Haritha, who was the son of Ne’man said: “I memorized sura Qaf from hearing it from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) because he used to recite it during his khutbah on Fridays.”
Since there were no microphones or loud speakers during the Prophet’s time, this Hadith is a clear indication that the women at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina sat close to the minbar. Umm Hisham “memorized Sura Qaf, which has 45 ayas, by hearing it again and again because the Prophet would recite it in his Friday khutbah, perhaps 20 or 30 feet away,” states Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed.
Similarly, Ibn Abbas, the paternal cousin of Muhammad (PBUH), reported that “A beautiful woman, from among the most beautiful of women, used to pray behind the Prophet (PBUH).” This Hadith was narrated by Ibn Majah, Abu Dawud, Attayalisy, Baihaqi, Ahmad, Tirmidhi, Nasai and others. It was judged authentic by Sheikh Al-Albaanee in his book, Silsilat Al-Ahaadeeth (Saheehah #2472), where he quoted many scholars who determined it to be true.
Additionally, more than 200 years after the migration of the Prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina, there was no separation of sexes in Islamic gatherings. Women were included in the meetings of scholars, where they sat alongside of the men, participating and asking questions freely. Dr. Kaukab Siddique explains that “the unislamic idea that even decent Muslim men and women, engaged in the holy acquisition of Islamic knowledge, should be separated from each other, must have taken centuries of decadence to plant itself in the Muslim mind…The separation grew steadily as society went further and further away from Islamic ideals.”
The notion that women do not belong in the mosque, and, if tolerated, should be in a separate, often enclosed area, or banished to a different floor, is one of the many social prohibitions designed to preserve the current power structure, keeping the disadvantaged in their place. Many such rules of prohibition, explains Dr. Sultan, are “couched in religious terminology to create an aura of authority.” However, since the essence of a human being is intellect, we have the responsibility to question these rules and where they come from. This reflection will lead to the clear realization that many of them, such as the exclusion of women from mosque life, are not based on piety or on the Islamic teachings of the Prophet (PBUH), but rather on prejudices and fears, and are therefore destructive, draining our spiritual power.
Since the time of Prophet Muhammad, 1400 years ago, when women were welcome at the mosque and given an important place in it, other cultures have greatly evolved. They recognize the valuable contributions women can make to a community and welcome women in their houses of worship. Christian and Jewish women, for instance, are given important roles at the churches and temples, and their societies are vibrant and thriving in many ways.
Sadly, however, as Dr. Sultan points out, “Muslim society has gone the other way. Muslim women have less status in the mosques today than 1400 years ago. This is because the affairs of mosques are decided by narrow minded men who got their religious education by rote-memorization and not by thinking.”
A few years ago, when I first accepted Islam, I was happy to discover there were nightly lectures at the 96st Street Islamic Center in New York City, which is near my apartment. I wanted to learn more about the religion, so I decided to attend. My excitement did not last long. As soon as I walked in, I was quickly directed to a small space behind a dark curtain.
I felt upset. The mosque is so beautiful and spacious, yet, I had to be not only dressed in clothing that was strange and uncomfortable to me just to go inside, but also, hidden in a small dark space because I am a woman. The experience, rather than one of peace and closeness to God, was one of claustrophobia, sadness and shame, which I have experienced on several occasions in other mosques in the city.
After finishing my prayers, when the lecture began, I could simply not tolerate staying there. It seemed ridiculous and by then I was quite angry. I had never encountered anything similar. In churches, men and women sit next to each other; everyone can see the priest as he talks and can bask in the beauty of the church. Here, in this enclosure, I obviously could not see the sheikh who was lecturing and could barely hear or understand him.
I was entirely covered, wearing a Jordanian abaya and a hijab, since this mosque is extremely conservative –at the time, I had not yet discovered welcoming, inclusive, and open spaces, such as the Islamic Center of New York University, where none of this ever happens. It felt absurd and demeaning to be forced to sit in that sealed-off tiny space, hiding, when the huge mosque was basically empty. I tried to explain this to the only other woman there, but she spoke no English. So I went outside, to the main area, and sat far behind the men.
The sheikh continued lecturing and said nothing. But one of the “brothers” soon realized I was there, sitting about 50 feet behind him. He shot me an angry look and promptly raised his hand complaining to the sheikh that there was “a sister” in their section. At this, the sheikh stopped lecturing, all the men turned to look at me, and he asked, “Sister, is there not enough space in the women’s section?” The sheikh knew very well that only one other woman was at the mosque.
“It is actually completely empty, but I want to sit here,” I replied. I was intimidated, but the indignation I felt gave me courage. Smiling at me, he said, “Of course, you can sit here,” and continued lecturing. The man who had complained fidgeted, visibly irritated. Once outside the mosque, the sheikh came to introduce himself to me and told me I was free to sit in the general area for the lectures, but that it would upset some of the brothers. I was incensed. How could it possibly bother these men in any way to have a woman sitting all the way in the back, entirely covered, listening to a lecture on Islam at the mosque?
Because of the strong accent this particular sheikh had, his low voice and lack of a microphone, sitting in the women’s section meant being unable to hear the lecture. The practical implication is that the knowledge imparted remains off-limits to women. As do the peace and beauty of the open spaces in this and many other mosques throughout the world.
The women rooms of most mosques are by far inferior to the areas reserved for the men. They are small, cramped, unkempt and dirty, and with often-malfunctioning sound equipment. Definitely not places where one’s heart feels uplifted or one’s spirit elevated, but actually the opposite. Furthermore, for women, seeing or speaking to the sheikh during Friday prayers is out of the question as is, obviously, leading prayers or even making announcements after the Friday khutbah.
These practices violate the principles of equality and inclusion that the Prophet (PBUH) taught and they need to change. What kind of community do we expect to build when half of the population is marginalized from religious life and treated as second-class citizens, viewed mainly as a source of temptation and nuisance to the other half? The atmosphere of many mosques is far from nurturing. It is dark and oppressive precisely because of these attitudes, which severely damage the community.
The segregation of women at the mosques contravenes the teachings of Islam. This practice is frequently justified under religious rhetoric, which is paradoxically employed to enforce one of the very cultural practices that Islam sought to eradicate: the oppression of women. How can those who engage in these corrupt practices believe they are pious while in actuality they circumvent the ideals of Islam and violate the teachings of the Prophet? Do they imagine they are more religious than the Prophet (PBUH), who included women in all aspects of life, or that they know better than him? Or do they simply not think at all? Whatever the reasons are, we need to go back to the empowering teachings of our Prophet (PBUH) and leave the dark era of division and exclusion in the past for good.
The consequences of excluding women from religious life or relegating them to hiding behind curtains, walls, or in basements are dire. The Muslim community is presently in a state of spiritual stagnation and in desperate need of revival. Spirituality should uplift us, nurture us, energize us, and empower us. But if instead, it represses us, discourages us, and disempowers us, something is terribly wrong.
In one of my favorite passages from The Quran and the Life of Excellence, Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed brilliantly explains, that “if religious teachings contribute to personal growth, resourcefulness, freedom and happiness of people who follow them, then these represent the true purpose of religion. If, on the other hand, religion is taught in ways that contribute to constriction of human potential, to unhappiness and lack of productivity, they are false, regardless of how famous the scholar who conveys these ideas.”
For these reasons, he elaborates, “we can see that all the interpretations that women should be subjugated, or their movements be restricted, or their choices should be controlled by men, are misguided interpretations. Any religious opinion that tries to limit the rights or opportunities of any group of people is a false interpretation.”