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The Mosque, Women, and God

The Roles of Women in the Mosque

Muslim College, 20-22 Creffield Road, Ealing

The faithful men and the faithful women are protecting friends of each other. They enjoin what is good and prohibit what is evil and establish prayer and give the Zakat and obey God and His messenger. They are those on whom God has mercy. God is Mighty, Wise. (Surah 9:71 - at-Tawbah)

I am a bit amused at how the title for this meeting turned out in the end. You see, where I come from,

mosque place of encounter for Muslims - men, women, children involved in different activities: studying, praying, teaching, social and welfare projects, interfaith activities. I'm relived to see that "Roles of Women" in the subtitle is in the plural, not, as every so often, in the singular, "Role of Women", as if there were one role at best: pray and go home. In fact, there are as many different roles for men and women as there are men and women.

Then there is "the mosque": not every mosque is the same. I have travelled in various parts of the Muslim world and seen very different examples: for mosque architecture as far as they are purpose-built; various ingenious ways to convert buildings into mosques: mosques that aren't built up at all - that are just an open space in the field set aside for the farmers to pray. After all, the English word mosque comes from the word masjid, literally a place of prostration, and the Prophet said in this context, "The whole earth is a mosque," private or public. The other Arabic word for mosque, jami', is literally a place of assembly, and again I have seen very different examples for community life in and around mosques and, besides, did some studies in history including scholars' biographies and the interaction of scholars through the ages. In the Prophet's time and for many centuries later, a mosque was not only place of prayer but for social, intellectual, and spiritual exchange - so one could almost talk about "The Role of the Mosque in the Life of Muslim Men and Women".

But I assume that the title, as it now stands, meets most Muslims and non-Muslims where they are: under the influence of widespread stereotypes. And unfortunately, these stereotypes come about not only through unfriendly mass media focussing on the inequality of men and women in the community but originate from social development in parts of the Muslim world (including Muslims in Europe). Gender role expectations in the family and in society that depend on a given socio-economic situation were often internalized and came to be felt as "part of Islam" and taken for granted.

Thus, I remember being under the impression of these stereotypes myself when I was 15 or 16 and my had the idea to study Islamic theology and law: I thought that perhaps it might never have happened before that a woman studied these subjects - but I was confident enough to take the risk of being the first one.

Well, as we all know now, of course I was not. There have been Muslim women scholars at all times in our history. However, the fact is that nearly all of my teachers were men; I didn't care but rather enjoyed the encouragement that I experienced from their side even when my questions and ideas were "out of the box" as they often are. But the experience did away with only part of the impressions left by the stereotypes: I practically "grew up" without a contemporary female Muslim role model. Only later on when I, encouraged by my teachers and challenged by the emergence of Christian feminist theology, studied more history, I discovered my spiritual sisters and grandmothers as well as various ways Muslim women in the past made use of their potential in communities and society.

Generally, this is my approach:

* I puzzle together information from various sources to get at the wider picture before I come to preliminary conclusions.

* In the text, I read in between the lines and from unusual angles: What exactly does the text say (especially in the Qur'an where every little word matters)? What does the text not say and why could that be the case? Why are exactly these words chosen?

* With regard to the subject we are discussing here, I never focus on "women" exclusively (in contrast to the common "feminist" approach) but look at the general social and spiritual context.

From this perspective, if you look at familiar stories referred to or outlined in the Qur'an and traditions beyond the different commentaries, language and history studies, trying to visualize the men and women in their real life situation, you will soon find the actions of the protagonists mentioned there and often pointed out as role models hardly ever fit in with traditional role expectation - and this applies not only to gender roles.


Abraham challenges his father and goes on a search of his own. Now the argument that his father was a polytheist has a point; nevertheless becoming witnesses for God's unity and developing the "attitude of Abraham that is pointed out to us for orientation needs a similar personal search, otherwise we would just be reproducing what we have absorbed in the course of being brought up in a Muslim family.

Surah 66:11-12 (at-Tahrim) points out two women, Pharoah's wife, traditionally called Assiyah, and Mary (Maryam) as "examples for those who have faith" (for both men and women, as the grammar indicates; if it were for women only the form would be different). Both show remarkable confidence and courage: Assiyah by persuading her tyrant husband to let her bring up baby Moses (Musa); Mary confronting her clan with baby Jesus ('Isa) whom she then brings up without a father.

The queen of Shebah, traditionally called Bilqis, is described, in Surah 27:20-44 (an-Naml), as a wise ruler:

instead of following her ambitious advisors' suggestions, she pursues peaceful diplomacy that opens the way for insight and guidance: she surrenders "with Solomon" to the Lord of the worlds (not "to Solomon and the Lord of the worlds"!).

Solomon is another example that goes contrary to generation roles by turning out to be wiser than his father and suggesting a better solution to a legal case.

And there are many other men and women in the Qur'an, mentioned with or without a name but giving similar food for thought.

The Prophet's companions and contemporaries

Mentioned alongside Mary as one of the leading women of the Garden is Khadîjah bint Khuwailid, the first Muslim and one of the the Prophet's greatest spiritual, emotional and material supporters. She was an accomplished business woman who, after the death of two earlier husbands, had succeeded in continuing their business for the benefit of her children, and to be respected in a role most unusual in pre-Islamic society. I think you are all familiar with the story how she employed and then married young Muhammad. But let us have a look at some "our of the box" questions about the context. How did she manage to become the business woman she was, at a time when many newborn girls were buried alive? Why did she not travel to Syria herself - were business trips abroad impossible or unacceptable for a woman, or were her children too young for her to get away? What were her arrangements with him about how to continue business after their marriage? Keeping in mind both their personalities and later Islamic property rules, they cannot have been far away from continuing the existing partnership, but how did she then cope with that and their children? Some of the answers can be found by drawing conclusions from various traditions. There we learn a more interesting details about her personality and what she shared with the Prophet besides business and family commitments. Khadijah was committed to the cause of the poor: she had contributed to projects like sponsoring and running a hospital during the plague epidemics; Muhammad was involved in the Hilf al- Fudul movement to stand up for the rights of the underprivileged. And finally: from the way she recognized the importance of his message and supported him after his deeply unsettling first experience of revelation, her own spiritual maturity becomes obvious.

Aisha, the daughter of Abu Bakr, was one of the very early Muslims and interested in the Prophet's message since her childhood to the extent that she learned all the revealed texts by heart. People whose imagination runs wild discussing her age at marriage forget both this and the fact that she was engaged to a

young man beforehand whose parents later objected, saying to her father Abu Bakr, "If we would permit our son to marry your daughter, she would certainly divert him from our religion and persuade him to join your religion!", and cancelling the engagement. She married the Prophet after the hijra. As a response to an evil case of slander against her, the Qur'an severely criticizes slander, backbiting, gossip, and exaggerated suspicion. She never had any children, but not many people bother to wonder about details of her everyday life until, after the death of the Prophet, she emerges as one of the most important scholars and teachers of her community and a recognized authority for traditions as well as for issues of law and theology. In fact, books on the history of Islamic law mention her as one of the first muftis.

Another well-known scholar and teacher among the Mothers of the Faithful was Umm Salamah whom we owe her the most detailed reports on how the Muslims were granted protection by the local Christian emperor of Abyssinia. The young family then returned to Makkah, only to find that the persecution continued. Having decided to emigrate to Madinah, Umm Salamah was captured by her clan and separated from her husband and child; she had to overcome a lot of trouble before the boy was returned to her and she was free to join her husband and the other Muslims in Madinah. When Abu Salamah died from his wounds after a war, the Prophet received her and her four children into his family. She accompanied him on several expeditions. With her presence of mind and her wise counsel she played a decisive role when the peace treaty of Hudaibiya was made. Later on, her daughter Zaynab became one of the best scholars of her time.

These are just three examples from the Prophet's own household. I could continue with many more but I assume that you are familiar enough with them.

Now all these examples are nearly exactly the opposite of the socially convenient "religious" woman who uncritically conforms to a role that is expected of her in today's Muslim community. I sometimes wonder how many parents would actually appreciate their daughters following such role models literally. However, they must have deeply influenced women at the time of the Prophet and later in Muslim history.

Hadîth and other contemporary traditions (history)

Besides the members of the Prophet's household, both hadîth literature and history collections mention quite a number of women who were involved in all kinds of activities like agriculture, home industry and crafts, or simply in "buying and selling goods"; there were midwives, perfume makers, marriage brokers and many other professions. Thus, for example, we hear about

Zaynab bint Abi Mu'awiya who "used to provide for (her husband) Abdullah (b. Mas'ûd) and the orphans who were in her care;" by, making and selling handicrafts - obviously successfully because she asked the Prophet at some point if she was permitted to give zakat to her husband; or of

Shifâ' who taught reading and writing and whom the Caliph 'Umar employed as a market inspector, i.e. she had to enforce the rules concerning measures, weights and business transactions in the market of Madinah.

On the whole, it becomes evident that all these women had a formative role in the history of the young Muslim community. They not only made an active contribution for the cause of Islam but also gave an example for the women and girls of later generations all the way to our own time and age. A few examples from later histrory:

The Prophet's granddaughter Zaynab who was a scholar and teacher alongside her brothers Hasan and Husayn and a recognized authority on religious questions; After the battle of Karbalah, she saved her nephew Ali Zainul-Abidîn's life with her courageous intervention.

Nafisa, (b. 762 C.A.) was familiar with the Qur'an and its commentaries and had a profound knowledge of Islamic law. She taught in public lectures and classes in Cairo. Ash-Shâfi'i to whom one of the Sunni schools of law is traced back was among her regular audience, discussing various theological and legal issues with her and sharing part of her spiritual life.

Râbi'ah al-Adawîya (b. ca. 717 C.A.) the mystic, a student of al-Hasan al-Basri's, was the first to teach pure

love for God for His sake rather than for the sake of His gifts. She had several male and female students and among her companions there were scholars and mystics like Sufyan ath-Thawri. Some of her prayers and poems are still available today.

Let us briefly look at how teaching and research was done in those days.

In pre-industrial age, children usually learned their profession from their parents or relatives, normally boys from their fathers and girls from their mothers. But not necessarily: Ijlîya bint al-Ijlî al-Asturlâbi, an astrolab builder, had learned her father's trade and took over his business; obviously successful, she was employed at the court of Saif ad-Dawla (in Northern Syria, 944 - 967 C.E.).

Higher religious and scientific studies generally were more a matter of interest and opportunities. Mosques were not only places of prayer but important centres of teaching religious and general knowledge and for intellectual and spiritual exchange. Teachers used to offer lectures and classes there - unless they offered them in their homes. In the Classical Age, the more important mosques developed into academies and universities, and hospitals had an important role in training doctors and nurses. We hear of cooperation between a male and a female doctor in a highly gender-segregated society: a doctor married a doctor, then they shared their work: the female doctor treated the female patients while her husband treated the male ones.

From contemporary accounts, we get a rather clear idea of intellectual activities, interaction and cooperation. Women scholars and teachers were highly respected. One example is Shuhda (d 1178 C.A.), nicknamed al- Kâtiba (the Writer), because of her brilliant mastery of calligraphy; she taught male and female students at Baghdad university in various branches of theology. A younger contemporary was Zaynab bint Abil-Qasim Abdurrahman ash-Shari who studied with the commentator of the Qur'an as-Zamakhshari; among her students there were some who became famous later on, like Ibn Khallikan, who wrote her biography. Karîma al-Marwazîya (d. 1070 C.A.) was known as the best contemporary expert for the hadith collection by al-Bukhari. Zaynab bint Ahmad (d. 1322 n.C.) who was fortunate enough to be able to travel in order to complete her studies, taught in Egypt and Medina, and the students came from far away to attend her lectures. If travelling in search of knowledge proved difficult for women - after all, contemporary criminals were not only interested in a woman's purse but also in herself for the slave market - they often overcame this obstacle by accompanying male family members or by meeting scholars from all over the world during the pilgrimage to Mecca. The world traveller Ibn Battuta mentions among the women with whom he studied in Damascus, Jerusalem and Baghdad one Zaynab (d. 1339 C.A.) who had acquired "a camel load of certificates". In Andalusia and some other places, women scholars opened salons for the cultivation of sciences and literature. Quite a number of women were experts for law. According to at-Tabari, women can be judges in all cases; Abu Hanifa allegedly demanded that there should be women judges in every city "in order that women's rights can be guaranteed". Even where women as rulers or judges were under debate, women were accepted as muftis.

In later centuries, the harem system limited especially upper class women's access to the public sphere. But nevertheless we repeatedly come across women who made profitable use of the rights guaranteed in Islamic law by managing and investing their property, either directly or though their agents. Many ladies became famous for sponsoring and managing awqâf, endowments for needy relatives or philanthropic endowments like hospitals, colleges, sufi convents, libraries, mosques, or orphan's projects, but also roads, bazaars and rest houses that paid the way for the former.

Some of today's stereotypes result from those later arrangements and create barriers that we put up in our minds as Muslims. I would like to suggest three points to overcome them in order to achieve a healthy personal and community development.


According to a statement by the Prophet, "acquiring knowledge is a religious obligation for every Muslim, man and woman." Correspondingly, it is the obligation of the community to provide it. Now knowledge is not just information, and not just about rules and principles but also about context and scope. If we think of

sharî'ah as a road, rules and regulations would be the guard rails that keep us from ending up in the ditch. But for a motorway it also needs different lanes for people with different speed, and, most important, also a direction in which to move on the Straight Path. It is even more important for orientation to find role models. In today's Muslim world, female role models are often not known, or they idealized beyond recognition like, in some cases, Mary or Fatima. But alas! Male role models are known by name but often enough presented as a knight on a horse or camel or as a ruler on a throne like Salahuddin - rather fitting right in with images of fire and sword. Neither gives us an idea of what we can possibly learn from a historical person that would be relevant for us, and the result is quite some insecurity among young men and women looking for orientation. It is our obligation to provide suitable materials that present our values in a meaningful way, as well as to be live role models (now that is not a role that you can take on deliberately like a job commitment and then relax, let's say by 5:30 p.m., but it is done by working on one's own character sincerely and to be honest about the mistakes we all make as human beings). In this context, we must also remember there is no such thing as one role for men or women but as many possible roles as there are men and women. Among scholars' roles is teaching, both verbally and in writing - the Prophet said, "The ink of the scholars is more sacred than the blood of the martyrs" - and as living examples. Scholars were described as "heirs of the prophets" - and where would we be if prophets hadn't been teachers and models?


I'm not good at making suggestions in this field, coming from an atmosphere of personal initiative, so my suggestions come only in very general terms. They are based on the Prophet's statement, "If you see something wrong, then remove it with your hands; if you are unable to do that, then with your tongue; if you are unable to do that, then reject it in your heart." Staying away from a mosque or community where the situation is not the way it should be may save a lot of pain but doesn't help. We should rather get involved in various ways (with hands or tongue or heart) or build up an alternative to give an example. In this context, it is important that we pool our resources, including the results of different approaches by various scholars, utilizing the creative dynamics of men and women from various schools of thought. Diversity is described in the Qur'an as part of creation and a sign of Creator.

Humankind, We have created you from male and female and made you into peoples and tribes that you may recognize (and learn from) each other. The most honourable of you before God is the most conscientious one of you. God is knowing, aware. (Surah 49:13 al-Hujurat)


Again, it is necessary to present materials about our historical examples including individual role models and to illustrate positive possibilities in a way that is relevant today. It is equally important to show our sharing process in public in an age where visual impressions and experiences matter so much. For example, much of the information that I mentioned so far, facts and figures and other information, as well as what you are going to say next, will be forgotten unless our audience already has some knowledge of it or is able to look it up. But the way we discuss and cooperate on this panel will leave a lasting impression that helps the memory.

We need committed men and women who support each other in fulfilling these responsibilities to study and teach and to be active in the public sphere and to work together towards a dignified and healthy Muslim community that is able to make a contribution to beneficial human development in the world.