Shaykh Ali Gomaa Approves of Woman-led Prayer

Shaykh Ali Gomaa took this position when he first heard that Amina Wadud was going to be leading prayer in 2005.  He was attacked on all side and submitted a carefully stated prohibition of woman-led prayer in response to pressure.  He has since reversed to his original position.  He argues that such a practice is permissible in communities that desire it and prohibited in those communities for which it would be culturally unthinkable.

“Therefore, if the Americans agree and feel satisfied with adopting the legal opinion which permit women to lead men in prayer then it is their own preference but we don’t issue such fatwa in our country because it goes directly against our cultural heritage which was established for centuries. The ultimate aim for any jurist is to look out for the interest of his people without contradicting a juristic consensus.”

Question:
An African American female professor of Islamic Studies in the University of Virginia decided to lead the Friday congregational prayer and deliver Friday sermon as an Imam due to her Islamic knowledge. What is the legal ruling for women leading men in prayers?

Answer: 
The majority of scholars agreed on the impermissibility of a woman leading men in prayers due to the possibility of jeopardizing the woman’s dignity and honor especially because prayer includes prostration. Therefore, Muslims along the centuries in the East and the West were accustomed to women praying behind men to preserve the high etiquette which Islam establishes between men and women. It is also important to state that Islam came as a universal message encompassing all people from different cultural backgrounds and this means it is not restricted to a certain culture or confined to a specific country.

Therefore, some scholars have permitted women to lead men in prayers such as Imam al Tabari and Mohi al Din ibn ‘Arabi and the issue in question is a subject of a scholarly debate in jurisprudence. The majority of scholars opine that it is impermissible for a woman to lead a man in prayer and the Hanafi scholars opine that if a woman stands for prayer in parallel with a man, the man’s prayer is invalid. The Shafi’i disagrees with the Hanafis and deems the man’s prayer valid and the same opinion was adopted by the Malikis and the Hanbalis.

The Hanbali scholar Ibn Qudama, mentioned in his book “Al Mughni” that if a woman led a man in prayer, where would she stand? This question indicates that the issue here is related to the standing position of the woman during leading the prayer. If the woman led the man in prayer, she would stand in front of him and it is inappropriate for a woman to prostrate in front of a man to preserve her dignity and modesty.

Imam al Tabari stated in this debate that it is permissible for a woman to lead men in prayer and cited that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was once visiting Um Waraqa bint ‘Abdullah ibn al Harith in her home and asked her to lead her household in prayers. Scholars concluded that men were among her household yet the Prophet asked her to lead the prayer. Therefore, if an American woman from African origin believed in the permissibility of women leading men in prayers, it is not a juristic issue but rather a question of those who follow her in prayer and obviously they agreed to her leading them in prayers.

Our mission is to disseminate the divine message to the whole world and in religion there are agreed upon facts which bear no differences in opinions and there are issues which are subject to scholarly debates and in the second type we should leave people to choose the juristic opinions that best suit their circumstances and environment.

Islam transcends the bounds of time and place so it is not an Egyptian, Arabic, Pakistani or Japanese religion and as long as the renowned scholars had different opinions on a certain matter then the issue is speculative and not definite. Therefore, I should leave it and don’t deny it as long as the people who adopt this opinion accept the ruling. People choose what best suits them. As for us in the Middle East, it is in appropriate in our heritage and culture to adopt such opinion because its harm might outweigh the expected benefits.

In all juristic issues, we follow the legal school that people are familiar with and used to. For example in marriage, divorce, prayer and all other aspects of religion, we followed the juristic legal opinions which best fulfill the interests of the people. Thus if the Americans happen to choose another legal opinion which is so far from our juristic preference yet suits them then there is no legal impediment as long as it is within the bounds of Islam and does not go against a matter which reached a scholarly consensus.
Some people might believe that the impermissibility of women leading men in prayer is a definite matter and no scholarly debate on the subject and thus when he figures out that there is a supportive opinion which favors women, he will feel shocked. Personal preferences and convictions do not carry much weight in this regard as long as the issue in question is subject to juristic differences in opinions.

Therefore, if the Americans agree and feel satisfied with adopting the legal opinion which permit women to lead men in prayer then it is their own preference but we don’t issue such fatwa in our country because it goes directly against our cultural heritage which was established for centuries. The ultimate aim for any jurist is to look out for the interest of his people without contradicting a juristic consensus.

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