Saturday, April 30, 2005


assalamu alaykum.

the following article was submitted to MWU! by my allegedly good self and at the invitation of the editors. for reasons beyond anyone's understanding, it was not published.

am i upset? not really. a few other places published it. and MWU's refusal to publish it confirms that they will only publish articles on the issue of women-led prayers if it agrees with their position.

MWU! has the right to refuse any article for publication. they are not obliged to publish all submissions. it is their prerogative. after all, MWU! has its own agenda.

what interested me is that i have submitted articles to MWU! that are far more controversial than this one. i have written 2 articles about prostitution. i have written an article about depression which asked some very difficult questions (such as whether a person unable to marry because of suffering from schizophrenia can lawfully visit a sex worker). MWU! editors have had to tone down some of my articles in case they are too hot to handle.

anyway, i would like readers of this magnificent blog to read it. feel free to hurl compliments, abuse and lots of nihari shurba in my direction.

ma salama


Honest Thoughts on Allegedly Feminist Friday

So a university professor of Islamic Studies who just happens to be female decides that she will give a sermon and lead a small group of Muslims in a prayer service in New York. So what? What’s all the fuss about? It’s a free country, after all.

(Well, it was until a bunch of idiots decided to fly a plane into a pair of skyscrapers in the same city.)

For average Americans or Australians or Europeans, Muslim or non-Muslim, watching or reading or hearing about Feminist Friday at that Anglican Church in New York (and the following fracas with the 10 or so demonstrators outside, according to the al-Jazeera report), the first paragraph of this article probably represent the first thoughts that came to mind.

Many would compare it to the debate over female priests in the Anglican Church. Others will have recalled Barbara Streisand dressed up as a rabbinical scholar in that movie which was so forgettable that I cannot recall its name (it definitely was NOT the equally forgettable movie called Meet the Fockers!).

What follows in the next few paragraphs is my attempt to understand my own feelings toward the event. I have spent hours arguing and debating the issue on the internet. Many will have been offended by my posts on the issue on this website. And others on more “orthodox” websites will be wondering why I still bother to stand on my cyber-milk-cart and shout like Abdul Rahim Greene here.

Smelly Kebabs

Some months back, on this website, someone published an article on the ‘smelly kebabs’ of the Zaytuna Institute. In relation to that article, I can make my first real confession. If Islam were Turkish cuisine, I would much prefer the smell and taste of Zaytuna kebabs over the slush of 'progressive' salad.

And for all of you who think you are progressive, listen up. I believe Zaytuna is the epitome of genuinely progressive Islam. Why? Because they seek and find progress WITHIN their tradition. They are happy to engage with other traditions. And they appreciate that many traditions share common features.

But what is the point of trying to get beyond ‘traditional’ Islam when you have not bothered to master that tradition? If you try to walk forward without knowing where you came from, you probably don’t know where you are going. So you might as well walk off the edge of a cliff without a parachute.

It’s easy to take elements of different trendy vegetarian ideas, put them together into some kind of ideological salad, add a bit of media-frenzy dressing and start munching. It may taste fresh, but it won’t necessarily be good for you.

Which leads me to acknowledge my own biases.


I believe it is essential that all you boys and girls out there in the Islamic cyber-State know where I am coming from. I make my prejudices public and resent those (progressive or otherwise) commentators on this issue who claim to be totally objective.

So let me start with a few confessions.

I am Muslim. I am a male. I live in Sydney, Australia. I practise law.

Is that it? No, there’s more.

In matters of fiqh (personal religious law), I follow the school of the ahnaaf (often incorrectly referred to as the ‘hanafi’ school). Most of my teachers were from the deoband tradition of North Indian hanafi sunni Islam, though I have been known to shed a tear or two whilst watching videos of Dr Tahir al-Qadri (from the allegedly competing barelwi tradition) speaking in his gorgeous Urdu on the status of our Prophet Muhammad (peace & blessings of God be upon him).

I believe in what is popularly known as “traditional” Islam. That does not mean that I agree with everything that every traditional scholar or writer has ever written or stated. For instance, like many followers of the orthodox naqshbandi tradition, I have serious problems with some “haqqani” elders. Especially after one of them decided to go to the US State Department and call most North American groups (including presumably the Zaytuna Institute) supporters of extremism and terrorism.

I have also had no problems in questioning some criticisms of Maulana Farid Esack made by Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter). And I told Shaykh Tim this when he visited Sydney last year.

But by and large, I regard traditional Islam as the most suitable and progressive form of Islam, flexible enough to be just as much at home in a deobandi madressa (or a barelwi one for that matter) in Karachi as in a halaqa of Young Muslims of Australia (http://www.yma.org.au/).

OK, those are my cards on the table. What does that make me think of Professor Amina Wudud Muhsin and the allegedly first mixed congregational prayer to be led by a woman?

The First Time …

MWU! and other organisers of the event told us that this would be the first time in history that a woman would be leading the salat al-jumuah (Friday congregational prayer) and delivering a khutbah (sermon that forms part of the prayer) in over 1,400 years of Islamic history. They waxed lyrical about the whole ‘first time’, until at one stage I thought it was Roberta Flack who would be leading the prayer.

Really? Are you sure this was the first time? I certainly wasn’t. I thought I had better check things out.

In the West, when you see something weird, you predict that it will probably have something to do with the United States. “Only in America!”, we often here. In the Muslim world, the weird things often seem to happen in Turkey. So asking Turks was a good start.

I rang my mate Alf, a Turkish Aussie who has sat with numerous Turkish scholars (including my own late teacher). Alf asked around a few of the hocas in Sydney. He then came back to me.

“Irfan, these guys who claim it is the first time in history are spinning sh#t. One hoca [Turkish for “imam”] told me these stunts were happening in Turkey 20 years ago! And also, there was that thing in South Africa that the funny dude was talking about”.

The thing in South Africa? That funny dude? I guessed Alf was talking about Maulana Farid Esack. I looked up the index of his book “On Being A Muslim” (which I reviewed on this very website) and found references to both Amina Wudud and Shamima Shaikh (may God have mercy on her) having something to do with mixed congregational prayers.Then someone sent me something about mosques in China built specially for women. Women giving khutba on Fridays and leading prayers. Admittedly blokes probably weren’t on the invitation list there.

Ok, I know some of you will be saying that these other incidents did not contain all the same features as the recent service led by Professor Wudud. But I think it was a bit misleading for the organisers to claim they were making history.

Sharia Arguments

I am no scholar of sharia (Islamic legal traditions). I have no ijaza (permission to teach) from another expert also possessing ijaza as part of a chain (sanad) of ijaza going all the way back to the Messenger of God (peace and blessings of God be upon him and his family). I also have not graduated from any Islamic or other university [in sharia]. Nor have I studied Islamic Studies at a western university or other institution.

As such, I cannot comment on whether Professor Wudud’s arguments have some basis within sharia. Many of those making outlandish comments and giving blank cheque fatwas on behalf of either side of the argument should have the guts to make the same admissions.

I have seen elsewhere that Imam Ibn Rushd, an expert on comparative systems of understanding sharia in the sunni school, has cited the opinion of the famous Imam Tabari which lends support to the recent service led by Professor Wudud. And many have pointed to this opinion.

Imam Tabari was well-known in his time. He was also well-respected. If he had openly expressed such an opinion, we might safely presume that somewhere some woman in his community led the Friday prayers. This further undermines the “we were first” claims.

Some have been arguing that sharia is sexist and that women were rarely allowed to be scholars. What, then, have we to say about Imam Shafei (God have mercy on him) who admitted having been taught by over 20 female scholars? And what do we make of our spiritual mother Aisha (God be pleased with her) who taught us so much about the more private aspects of sharia and who is regarded (at least in the sunni school) as one of the greatest hadith scholars and jurists of her time?

But even if I were to agree that the entire evolution of sharia kept women out of the scholarly loop, does it make sense for me to look within that same tradition for an opinion supporting my case? And an opinion from a male?

It’s a bit like the late Ahmed Deedat (God have mercy on him) disputing the authenticity of the New Testament, but then using the same inauthentic document to prove his case against the crucifixion.

Minority Opinions

Legally, one thing is certain. If you stray from the mainstream, you are swimming in dangerous waters. This applies to any legal tradition, whether common law or continental law or sharia law.

In Nigeria, Amina Lawal was the victim of a magistrate with little knowledge of sharia trying and sentencing her in accordance with a minority and largely discredited opinion of the Maliki school of law.

Minority opinions are dangerous because they have rarely been tested and applied. This in itself does not make them wrong. It also does not make them completely without basis. You cannot say the recent Friday service was without basis when someone of the calibre of Imam Tabari was prepared to stick his scholarly neck out over one millennium ago and support the idea.

Minority opinions can be dangerous. And when used to support noble intentions and agendas, they can cause more damage than good to the cause they are being used to serve. Which leads me to my main point.

Amina Is Not Helping Amina

I have no doubts about the sincerity of the organisers of the recent Friday service, their supporters and all those who agree with Professor Wudud’s position.

The Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) once said: “The best of you is he who is best to his wife”. He also said: “Paradise is under your mother’s feet”.Yet look at how our communities across the world treat their wives, sisters, mothers, aunts. Anyone who claims Muslims respect human rights must be joking. How can you claim to respect human rights when you discriminate against over 50% of your community? I’ve heard of oppressing minorities, but this is gender apartheid and it is just ridiculous.

How often do you see Punjabi Muslim men being gang-raped or shot or stoned for talking to a female? How often do you see a middle class Karachi kid being whipped for sneaking out of a video-hire place with pornographic DVD’s? Why do prostitutes in Dhaka get punished and ostracised but not their clients?

I have heard of Amina Lawal. Where is Ahmed or Muhammad or Tariq or Irfan Lawal?

When it comes to human rights, we have reached crisis point. When we Muslim men mistreat our wives and our mothers, we are clearly not the best among men. And we are certainly not deserving of the paradise that lies under the feet of our mothers.

This, I believe, was the real motivation of Professor Wudud and those behind her (both at the Friday service and otherwise). Their intentions are noble and necessary. But the prayer service itself was not.

Yes, we sitting in our middle class homes in air-conditioned comfort eating micro-waved meals and typing words on the latest computers as we illegally download songs from LimeWire, we might think our well-intentioned acts reach out and touch the lives of millions.

But how many of us have been to Muslim societies and Muslim countries and really understood the core of the problem? Are Muslim women oppressed because they may or may not be allowed to lead congregational prayers?

The causes for women’s oppression are many and varied. Muslims are not a monolith. Our understanding of Islam and what it has to say about gender relations is conditioned by our cultures, our climate, our history, our interactions with non-Muslim cultures, our exposure to mass media etc.

Liturgy and procedures of ibada (formal worship) are not necessarily the only cause. And not all Muslim women necessarily feel oppressed by our traditional liturgy.

And our solutions may not suit all Muslim communities. In South Africa, many Muslim women are struggling just to get into the mosque. In most mosques in Sydney, women are given the smallest and smelliest places for prayer. In some mosques, cars are parked in nicer spots than the places where women are expected to worship their Creator.

Did traditional Islam lock these women out of the mosque or confine them to such small and smelly spots? Did traditional Islam empower village elders to gang-rape women? Did traditional Islam allow a lowly Nigerian magistrate to wrongly sentence a woman to death?

Muslim women in Aceh trying to re-build their lives destroyed by the tsunami probably could not care less about events in New York. Muslim women in Pakistan in hiding from honour-killing male relatives won’t feel any less insecure thanks to Professor Wudud being an Imam. Amina Wudud has not helped Amina Lawal.

Yes, we are told. This is all true. But the Friday prayer of Professor Wudud was a start in the process of liberation. Really?

Are we to presume it is only mad mullahs who are offended by this event? I don’t think so. Many Muslim women are speaking out against the prayer, and they do so for a variety of reasons. Writers here might express disdain for those reasons. But the onus is on those introducing this practice to convince their sceptical critics.

How to Lose Friends & Infuriate People

And why shouldn’t the critics be sceptical? Many Muslim women find it offensive that one woman feels she can re-invent the salat/nemaz/ritual worship wheel. They also feel offended that those involved are taking credit for liberating Muslim women whilst the reality on the ground is so stark.

You cannot expect to be able to liberate women by offending them and their sensibilities. You cannot expect to implement change by belittling people’s beliefs and core practices. Unless, of course, if you want to look like Hizbut Tahrir or al-Muhajiroun, trying to convince people to adopt Islam by telling them their entire system is evil and should be crushed.

Changing established rules of fiqh to get a good write-up in the NYT is not my idea of a sound prescription for reform of any legal system. Do-it-yourself sharia for publicity should be left to the experts, along with flying jets into skyscrapers.

Then again, in a community with as little intellectual vigour as ours, you could come up with a most eminently sensible view and have scholarly views and sources to back up your argument, and people will still call you nasty things. Look at poor Dr Ramadan and his view on the suspension of capital punishment in Muslim countries. Even those claiming to follow his grandfather are opposing him.

So I guess a good way to lose friends in our society is to speak your mind. It infuriates people and gives them the sh#ts. I may not agree with Professor Wudud, but I am sure both of us sleep very comfortably at night.

8 comment(s):

  • nihari? you want us to hurl nihari? no way!

    Nihari must be eaten, not hurled, -maybe right after a late night session of Qawalli - with some good hot nan, and seekh kababs (not the smelly kind).

    By Blogger redwood, at 4/30/2005 10:43:00 AM  

  • This was the "first ever" because of the way the media descended on the prayer. So, this "prayer" was done for the sake of the media. The first ever female led mixed gender prayer organized for the express purpose that it would get massive media coverage. And MWU would then be able to claim that it got this many millions of hits on that one day. Salaat for media - what will the PMU think up of next?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/30/2005 10:54:00 AM  

  • Salaams

    My concern is that the level of publicity, combined with the legal uncertainty and American location of the Wadud event, will actually instigate a backlash.

    Look at the recent upsurge of extremist misogny in Pakistan? MWU/Wadud's actions might get people talking about gender justice in affluent nations, but this event may actually get women killed in nations where anti-Western, reactionary sentiment is on the boil.

    In my view, the mixed-gender Jummah might have had the best of intentions, but it may provoke the worse of outcomes.



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  • Sounds like you could use some education in jurisprudence before casting your votes against minority opinions. The corpus isn't opposed to minority opinions at all. There's another minority opinion that never actually explicitly developed: slavery is no longer allowed. Does that make it a bad one? Ah but gender..that's the stumbling block.Let's go back to traditional "islam" so we can escape that feminist crap ...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/16/2005 08:08:00 PM  

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