Women and Masājid
Since the balkanization of the Muslim world into nation-states the mosques have been reduced to mere praying places and in the subcontinent are exclusively for men. In this write-up, Faizan Akbar takes us back to the golden era of Islam when mosques were the learning centers of socio-politico-economic affairs for men as well as women. In order to restore the lost glory of mosques, the author suggests the measures to be taken which include opening the doors for the other half of the population.
The debates concerning the permissibility and the practice of Muslim women attending congregational prayers, and partaking in other activities at the masājid (sing. Masjid) are not new to the Islamic legal discourses. These debates date back to the Prophetic generation itself, which is indicated by the presence of several Prophetic narrations found in the various compilations of the Ḥadīth that are with us today, viz. al-Bukhari, Muslim etc. Therefore, to understand them, and to try to extrapolate possible answers and solutions for them, its imperative for us to revisit our past. A brief reconstruction of the history of the social practices and legalistic discourses pertaining to this phenomenon will bring forth the inconsistencies of the arguments that are made in favor of preventing or discouraging the women’s presence at the masājid.
The Masājid in the past
On the arrival of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), in the city of Medina, one of the first things that he did was construct a masjid – Masjid e Qubā’ – thereby exemplifying the primacy of the masjid in the religion of Islam. However, the essence of the institution of the masjid was only actualized after the establishment of Al-Masjid an-Nabawī in the heartland of Medina in the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia. This masjid was not limited to serve solely as a place of prayer, for both men and women, but it served as a comprehensive social institution that was central to the public life of the Muslim community. It was located in the center of the community and the houses, streets, and other administrative offices were constructed as an outgrowth or as branches emanating from it.¹ This peculiar style of architecture was emulated until the late middle ages throughout the Muslim lands. And it is this peculiarity of architectural style that enabled the masjid to serve as a community center, a court, and a religious school for men and women, young and old, alike. Contrary to the present-day notions of the masjid, the Prophet’s masjid was a place that was not only tolerant but also overwhelmingly welcoming to any and every person that would approach it. So much so that it even provided shelter to those wounded in battles², or to the distressed and the homeless.³ Moreover, the masjid was as much accessible to the women as to the men. There are several reports that authentically state that the women were encouraged to, and thus would, regularly attend the daily congregational prayers – even the dawn and the night prayers⁴ -, the jumuah and the two Eid prayers. So much so that the Prophet (SAW) even used to encourage the menstruating women (who are temporarily exempted from praying) to come and join in the supplications of the Muslims at the Eid prayers.
Similarly, the presence of children in the masjid was also commonplace. There are reports that mention that the women would bring the children to the masjid along with their ‘toys’ and then the children would play in the masjid while their mothers prayed. Moreover, the women had direct access to the Imam or the Khaṭīb for there was no rigid barrier separating the men and the women – a practice which developed in later Islamic history and happens to be very common in today’s date – except for the norm that the front rows were designated for the men and the last rows for women. The amiability of such arrangements enabled women to take an active role in the Ḥalaqāt or Khutbāt taking place in the masjid which is exemplified by the various reports that have reached us mentioning accounts of women asking questions, giving answers or even, at times, correcting the khaṭīb, if he erred, in the masjid. The presence of women in the masjid was valued immensely by the Prophet (SAW). It is reported that some women once complained to the Prophet (SAW) about getting lesser time than their male counterparts to learn the religion from Him. The Prophet (SAW) therefore designated a separate day in a week exclusively dedicated to teaching Muslim women. It is also noteworthy to mention here that the Prophet (SAW) had kept a freed slave girl as a caretaker of the masjid, whose place of dwelling, a small tent inside the masjid, was made by the Prophet himself. This is the example and the legacy of our predecessors – to establish the masājid as the centre of the community life, well disposed of for everyone, men, women, and children alike.
Capturing the spectacular beauty of the masājid of our past, a famous English traveler and historian, Julia Pardoe wrote in the mid -1830s regarding the Ottoman Turkey,
“A group of ulema was engaged in prayer as we entered […] and almost in the centre of the floor knelt a party of women similarly engaged, while a couple of children, who had accompanied them, were chasing each other over the rich carpets […] An erroneous impression has been obtained in Europe that females do not attend, or rather, I should perhaps say, are not permitted to enter, the mosques; this, as I have just shown, is by no means the case.”
Gradual disappearing of women from Masājid
The central position of the masjid in the community life remained as such more or less till the middle ages. However, it gradually started dwindling under the influences of Greek-Roman inspired western notions of urban spacing at the outset of colonialism and subsequent modernization in the Muslim lands after the medieval ages. According to these notions, cities were constructed around a public square called the town square and the place of worship, viz. Church, would physically be separated from the public square and its adjacent markets. The emulation or imposition of this pattern in the Muslim societies marked the beginning of the secularization process of the Muslim community life. Subsequently, with the emergence of specialized institutions for education, legal hearings, political offices, etc., the historical purpose of the masjid was gradually undermined. Therefore, the masjid was reduced to a large prayer mat which was to be used for one sole purpose – of praying the daily prayers. One of the many ramifications of this shift was the dwindling of the numbers of women coming to masjid. In the past, women used to attend the masjid for several other reasons besides praying, for example, to attend meetings, durus, and halaqāt, as witnesses for legal matters, to socialize with fellow believers, etc. Since these functions were no longer performed by the masjid and it was only used as a place of prayer, many women stopped coming to the masājid and started praying at their homes, which was an option available to them.
Another reason behind this trend was the emerging apprehension of fitnah due to the excessive or improper interaction between the men and women at the masājid among some scholars. There are some accounts that suggest that the nature of the interaction between men and women at the masājid had become a cause of suspicion after the passing away of the Prophet (SAW). It’s against this backdrop that we find a report in which Ā’isha (ra) comments that, “If the Messenger of God had lived to see what women have innovated, he would have forbidden them from visiting the masjid.”
Although, considering this situation some precautionary measures were taken like reserving a separate entrance for the women, etc., but this statement of her was never used as a daleel in a general sense for discouraging or affecting a complete ban on the women going to the masājid by any of the companions. It was, however, used by some later scholars to imply and suggest discouragement, or even, impermissibility of the women attending prayers at the masjid.
Although, there were scholars who countered this misplaced deduction like the great theologian of the tenth century CE, Ibn Hazm (RA), who wrote an exhaustive critique of such rulings, nonetheless, jurisprudential positions like these went onto discourage women from going to the masjid and thereby decreasing their attendance at the masājid.
What does the text say?
There is no denying the fact that there are mutawatir aḥādīth present in the Ḥadīth corpus that clearly states the impermissibility of preventing the women from going to the masājid. To quote one of such reports here, the Prophet (SAW) has stated that, “Do not prevent the female servants of Allah from going to the masājid of Allah.” It’s noteworthy to relate here that ʻUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (RA), the second caliph of Islam, used to dislike his wife’s attending the masjid, but he never prevented her from doing so, because of the aforementioned directive of the Prophet (SAW). However, it should also be mentioned that the same reports that state so, also add caveats about the impermissibility of improper adorning or using excessive perfumes for women while attending the masjid. The Sunnah requires them to be al-Tafilāt , i.e, without excessive perfumes and attractive attires, for attending the masājid.
Besides the narrations that state so, there are some reports that insinuate that the prayer of women at home is better than in the masjid. And it is these reports that some scholars, prominently from Hanafi and Maliki schools of thought, have ruled that it is not preferred for a woman to go to the masjid. However, there are some scholars who have contended the validity of this position. Ibn Hazm (RA) is one of such scholars. He undertakes an exhaustive critique of these jurisprudential positions in his prominent work al-Muhalla.  He argues that there is no precedent of any social practice found from the generation of the Prophet (SAW) or that of his companions that suggests that the women were discouraged from attending the masjid. Moreover, he also contends the authenticity of the reports that suggest the prayer of women at home is better and, since the reports that state that the prayer in congregation is better than the prayer done on ones own make no distinction between a man and woman, he argues those reports apply to women as well, and, therefore, the prayer (fard salah) of women at the masjid is preferable and thus more rewarding in nature.  Nonetheless, even if it is believed that their prayer at home is better, which is a contested position as stated above, it cannot be argued that attending Khutbat, Halaqāt and other events of social importance which take place at the masājid is not preferable or recommended for the women. It indeed is recommended and is unanimously agreed upon by the scholars.
So, what should be done now?
Having taken a brief look at the historical precedents and the textual discourses concerning this matter, it cannot be a misplaced extrapolation to state that it is indeed recommended for women to attend the masjid, for prayers and for other activities of social and communal context, and that its incumbent upon as a community to take efforts for the actualization of the same.
The first step towards making our masājid inclusive to women, young and old alike, should be a genuine endeavour to restore the centrality of the masjid in our community’s public life, and, we, at the same time, should acknowledge and reiterate the fact that the women are an indispensable part of our community life, and they are not meant for the homes only which unfortunately happens to be a prevalent stereotype in our society. To this end, regular educational programs should be held at our masājid where the participation of women is valued and, therefore, encouraged by all means. In addition to these general programs, programs exclusively for women where women scholars are invited to speak should also be held on a regular basis so that the women are able to seek answers and knowledge without any reluctance about issues specific to women.
It is argued by some that events and programs of this kind are not necessarily required citing reasons that the internet and digital media are a good alternative instead. However, what misses their eyes is the fact that there is a large portion of the population among the Muslims, both men and women, particularly in the rural areas, who lack access to these digital media or books, given their illiteracy. Therefore, the only source of knowledge that is left for them is the traditional masjid. Furthermore, the masjid provides not only literal knowledge but praxis as well. The ambiance of the masājid imparts a characteristic spirituality which the digital media cannot. And, it is a place, as was stated earlier, which has provided a congenial space for the Muslims to socialize with their fellow believers – men, women, young and old alike.
It is also unfortunate that the women have usually been excluded from the councils and committees, known as “intizamiya committees” in the local parlance, which regulate the affairs of the masājid. This attitude stands at a clear variance from the precedents of our past, as the presence and participation of women in social matters were highly valued by our predecessors. ʻUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (RA) is reported to have appointed a saḥābiyyah, Shifā’ bint Abdillāh (ra), as the supervisor of the market of Madinah.  The Prophet (SAW) had appointed a woman as the caretaker of His masjid.  Therefore, the parochial notions of “women-homes men-outside” should be shunned and women should be included in the committees and councils of the masājid without any reluctance. This would enable us as a community to understand the problems better that women face in the masājid and thereby solve the same, together as a community.
Furthermore, many women complain about the poor maintenance conditions of spaces that are allotted to them in the masājid. So, efforts should be made to provide women with adequate and decent spaces within the masjid thereby not letting them feel valued any lesser than the men. The aḥādīth that state that women should not be prevented from attending the masjid should be understood in a comprehensive manner. Impediments do not only mean the immaterial ones, viz. granting permission, but it also includes material impediments like the arrangements made for women at the masājid. So, we should make sincere efforts, at the earliest, to remove all kinds of impediments that prevent the womenfolk from attending the masjid.
This issue is of utmost importance to our community and therefore should be looked into at the earliest. It is very unfortunate that the women of our society have been and continue to be deprived of their right to benefit from the masājid. We have been very meticulous, and rightly so, in taking measure to provide secular education to our youth, both men and women, but, at the same time, and quite, unfortunately, failed to take adequate measures to acquaint them with their religion, which is necessary for their salvation in the Hereafter. And when the masjid could have played the role of imparting, at least, the preliminary knowledge of this religion to our youth, we have either reduced it to the sole purpose of praying the daily prayers or shut its doors to half of the population of our society, under whose guidance and spiritual mentorship the other half grows up – the Muslim women.
(The readers are advised to go through the book “Ibn Hazm on the lawfulness of women attending prayers in the mosque” by Shaykh Akram Nadwi to understand this issue better from a legalistic perspective).
1. Ronald Lewcock, Cities in the Islamic World, ed. Attilo Petruccioli and Khalil K. Pirani, Understanding Islamic Architecture (Routledge Curzon, 2002), 41
2. Sahih al-Bukhari 463.
3. Sahih Al-Bukhari 3835.
4. Sahih al-Bukhari 372.
5. Sunan an-Nasa’i 1558
6. Sahih Muslim 1136 b.
7. Muṣannaf ‘Abd al-Razzāq 10420
8. Sahih al-Bukhari 439.
9. Julia Pardoe, City of the Sultan; and the Domestic Manners of the Turks, in 1836 (London, Henry Colburn, 1837), 2:51, 2:53
10. Ronald Lewcock, Cities in the Islamic World, ed. Attilo Petruccioli and Khalil K. Pirani, Understanding Islamic Architecture (RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), 41
11. As there is a consensus among the scholars that it is not obligatory for a woman to pray her obligatory prayers at the masjid while for an adult male it is deemed to be obligatory by a majority of the scholars.
12. Sahih Muslim 445 a
13. Marion Holmes Katz, Women in the Mosque (New York, Columbia University Press, 2014), 63
14. See Nadwi, Muhammad Akram. Ibn Hazm on the lawfulness of women attending prayers in the mosque. Interface Publications, Oxford, 2015.
15. Sahih Muslim 442 c, Sunan Abi Dawud 565, Sahih al-Bukhari 900.
16. Sahih al-Bukhari 900.
17. Nadwi, Muhammad Akram. Ibn Hazm on the lawfulness of women attending prayers in the mosque. Interface Publications, Oxford, 2015. P-16
18. The portion concerning the “lawfulness of women attending prayers in the mosque” has been translated by Muhammad Akram Nadwi under the same title. See reference no. 17.
19. Nadwi, Muhammad Akram. Ibn Hazm on the lawfulness of women attending prayers in the mosque. Interface Publications, Oxford, 2015. P-24
20. See Abu Nu’aym al-Asbahani, Ma’rifat al-sahabah, 5/261.
21. See reference no. 8.
The author pursues graduation in Political Science from Aligarh Muslim University, India. He can be mailed at email@example.com.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not reflect the stand or policy of Oracle Opinions.