November-December 2007 
Year 14    No.126
Gender Jihad

Let them lead

Fatwa by Dr Abou El Fadl on women leading mixed gender prayer

Dear Brother Khaled,

We here at (name withheld for privacy) have a small problem which I hope you can advise us on. Having met you when you did an NPR programme at the MIT auditorium and being a frequent distributor of the book, The Place of Tolerance in Islam, to friends, I believe you might be able to offer some guidance in the following matter.

For the past two years the young students here, male and female, have been guided in prayer by a young man, Egyptian, raised in Saudi Arabia, who led Jummah (Friday) prayers and offered the khutbah (address or public prayer).

He is graduating this spring. This leaves three girls (Afghan, Lebanese and Pakistani) as the students most informed about Islam and able to lead prayer. There are two young boys, just past puberty. All together will be eight Muslims. I am their advisor. I believe that the girls should be able to lead prayer and are competent to do so.

I believe that given the small size of the group the imam can be in the centre with girls on one side and boys on the other with no one behind.

Is this acceptable? The girls are very willing. The boys are very hesitant, including this year’s imam who believes I am offering something that is very haraam (forbidden).

Could you please help us through this conundrum? If the girls do not lead we might not have a Jummah prayer.

For years I have been trying to train the students to lead their own prayers so that when they go off to college they will be leaders in their own right. I don’t want them to be dependent on me to lead prayers and solve problems – except this one.

(Name withheld for privacy)


Thank you for contacting me and I pray that you are in the best of health and spirit.

As you know, you raise a very controversial issue. First, I will say something about the purpose of an imam in prayer and second, I will comment on the gender issue.

In general, there have been two main orientations regarding the qualifications of an imam at prayer – especially Friday services – the first more liberal than the second. The first orientation practically demands nothing of an imam other than the ability to pray. As long as a man could perform the requisite set of acts and oral recitations required in prayer, the first orientation argued, he was deemed qualified to lead prayer.

The second and more demanding orientation set out what can be called a priority or preference system for an imam. This orientation saw the imam as a sort of teacher to the community – someone who could perform an educational or instructional role during the Friday services. Therefore the second orientation gave preference to the person who memorised more of the Koran compared to others in the community so that he could recite various portions and expose the community to a wider selection of the Koran. The second orientation gave preference to the person who could pronounce and vocalise the words of the Koran the best.

Importantly, it also gave preference to the person who was the most learned in religion and also the most learned about the affairs of the community. During the khutbah this person would be able to educate the community about the meaning of the Koran and Sunnah and apply the teachings of Islam to the specific issues that are relevant to the community of worshippers.

The first orientation practically expected nothing of the khutbah – it was deemed sufficient for the imam to remind people of a few religious obligations and exhortations and then move on. The second orientation, relying on the precedent set by the prophet and al-Khulafa’ al-Rashidun, expected the khutbah to be an opportunity for inspiring a discourse in the community about the most pressing or pertinent issues confronting the imam’s own community. Therefore it is not enough that the imam be able to recite a few surahs (chapters) from the Koran. Rather, the imam should be able to provoke the love of learning in the community and should set an example as to how the teachings of Islam should and can inform and affect real-life challenges. The way these scholars used to put it is that the imam should play a leading role in creating a community bonded by enjoining the good and forbidding the evil (i.e. bonded by an ethical and moral discourse).

Between the two orientations I believe, and god knows best, that the second is by far the more correct and the most true to the spirit of jumu’ah (weekly Friday congregational prayer).

Now, as to the gender issue.

There is no question that the vast majority of jurists excluded women from ever leading men in prayer. Many jurists, however, permitted women to lead women in prayer if no male is available to lead the prayer. Some jurists said women may lead women even if a male is available to lead as long as women lead only women.

The Koran itself does not mandate that only men be allowed to lead prayer. The Sunnah is indecisive on the issue. There is evidence that the prophet on more than one occasion allowed a woman to lead her household in prayer – although the household included men – when the woman was clearly the most learned in the faith.

Up to the fourth Islamic century there were at least two schools of thought that allowed women to lead men in prayer if the woman in question was the most learned. In such a case, the men stood to the side so that they were not praying behind the woman imam. However, these schools (al-Thawri and Ibn Jarir) became extinct. So it is fair to say that since the fourth century all schools of thought did not allow women to lead men in prayer.

In my view, I look at the evidence and ask the following question: If a female could better teach and instruct the community about the Islamic faith should she be precluded from doing so because she is a female? Now, there is no dispute that a female could hold a class (halaqa) and instruct women and men about Islam. I think everyone agrees on that point. But the question is: Is there a specific exclusion against women when it comes to prayer? It seems to me that if there is such an exclusion the evidence in favour of this exclusion ought to be strong, if not unequivocally so. But the legal evidence in favour of such an exclusion is not very strong – it is more an issue of customary practice and male consensus than direct textual evidence.

Consequently, in my opinion, priority ought to be given to what is in the best interest of the community, and knowledge is the ultimate good. It seems to me that if a female possesses greater knowledge than a male – if a female is more capable of setting a good example in terms of how she recites the Koran and also in terms of teaching the community more about the Islamic faith, a female ought not be precluded from leading jumu’ah simply on the grounds of being female.

I do agree with your position that the community of students should learn to depend on themselves. I also agree that if a female leads prayer the males should not stand directly behind her – she could stand ahead of the lines with the men standing to her side.

This is a controversial issue and so I do not offer this advice lightly. Ultimately, god knows best, and I might be wrong. So please read what I have written, reflect on the matter, pray on it and then do what your conscience selflessly dictates. It is the conscience that is the ultimate protector from liability before god. I pray that god guides us both to what pleases him and leads us to his straight and just path.

I pray this has been of some assistance to you and please remember me in your prayers.

Shaykh Abou El Fadl

(Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of Law, is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at the UCLA School of Law, USA.)


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