Book: Reclaiming the Mosque: The role of women in Islam's House of Worship
Author: Jasser Auda
Publishers: Claritas Books in association with Maqasid Institute), 2017
The most famous Ḥadīth collection, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, records 'Umar, the Second Caliph, to have said, "We did not value women as anything during the 'period of ignorance' unless Islam came and started mentioning them because of which we took into consideration their rights upon us." (Ḥadīth No. 5505) This narration along with a multitude of other Qur'anic injunctions and Prophetic sayings, plus the practice of the Prophetic era makes it clear beyond any doubt that the purpose of Islam is to elevate the status of women, encourage rather ensure their participation in the society and make them the vibrant contributors to the overall human progress side by side the other half of humanity. But, ironically, in the subsequent periods of Muslim history, the jurisdiction of women in the Muslim societies was reduced to the confines of the household depriving her of an active social participation. While there is no denying that some external political factors and cultural influences led to this situation, but the 'religious'/ 'Islamic' overtone given to this non-Islamic discrimination against women is the most unfortunate part to aggravate the predicament.
The present book under review is the result of the grueling work done by Dr. Jasser Auda, the leading international expert on Maqāṣid al-Sharī'ah, to bring to fore the role of women in the "Islam's house of worship." It deals with the concerned issues from the Islamic jurisprudential point of view based on the original sources of Islam. In the very first chapter, the author maintains that while there is some scope for permissibility of all-female mosques in Islamic jurisprudence, but these are potent of compromising, like all-male mosques, the higher objectives of cooperation and unity in the Muslim community. He perceives it as an addition to the already existing division of the mosques on different lines-racial (Turkish, Indian, Afro-American), jurisprudential (Sunnī, Shī'ī, etc.), political (Ikhwān, Salafī, Hizb al Taḥrīr, etc.)
The following chapters of the book serve as answers to a range of questions like 'how do we judge what is Islamic? 'What does the Qur'ān say about women and mosques?', 'what does the Sunnah say about women and mosques? etc. It is a mirror to the misuse of the word 'Islamic' used in present times to label certain things/activities like 'Islamic movies', 'Islamic slaughter houses', 'Islamic political parties', while nothing substantially 'Islamic' is realized. The proponents of these 'Islamic' constructs continue to violate the spirit and purposes of Islam in no less measure than those who are opposed or indifferent to Islam. The author makes it clear that anything can be designated as 'Islamic' only on the basis of Qur'ān and Sunnah and whatsoever contradicts with these foundational sources cannot be rendered 'Islamic' by any 'ḥalāl' stamp or signature of any 'sharī'ah committee'. However, he calls for an integrated purpose-based holistic reading of Qur'ān and Sunnah against the partial, historical, and historicist methodologies.
In Chapter 2, the author draws upon a number of Qur'anic verses, to argue in favour of women participation in mosques. He draws our attention to the verses in which believing people irrespective of their gender have been asked to frequent the mosques. Again, he brings to our attention the verses in which the Qur'ān has used the word 'al-nās' meaning people (including both men and women) wrongly translated by the major translators as men. This reflects the influence of pre-assumptions and biases on the Qur'ān translators regarding the issue of women participation in the mosques. Taking all aspects into consideration meticulously, the author has not missed the mention of the Qur'anic verses related to mosques bearing the word 'rijāl' that translates to men in the colloquial Arabic. He gives evidences from the Qur'ān itself as well as Arabic Dictionaries to the fact that 'rijāl' can be used to mean both men and women. The word 'rijāl' is used in the Qur'ān to mean men (to the exclusion of women) only when there is a simultaneous mention of the word 'nisā' meaning women. The next chapter deals with the issue of 'women and the mosques' in the light of evidences from the Sunnah of the Prophet "indicating women's normal presence at all times and on all occasions at the time of the Prophet. (p.31) The narrations mentioned make clear beyond any doubt how women used to frequent the mosque during the time of the Prophet. Far from being prevented from the mosque, they used not only to pray along with men but also attend the sermons, enquire from their fellow male companions if something eluded their listening anyway, camp their tents within the premises of the mosque, sweep the mosque, and even establish their 'clinic' in the very mosque itself. Not only this, women used to watch the entertainment plays on special occasions in the mosque premises as indicated by the statement of 'Ᾱ'ishah, the beloved wife of the Prophet. The status enjoyed by women in the mosque during the times of the Prophet is diametrically opposed to the discrimination women face at the places of worship in present times.
The preventing of women from visiting mosques is often grounded on a statement of 'Ᾱ'ishah, she made in a particular context observing mischief by some women. Commenting on the particular circumstances she remarked that if Prophet had witnessed all that he would have prohibited women from visiting the mosques. This statement of 'Ᾱ'ishah is generalized beyond proportion and the clear injunctions of the Prophet are ignored. Moreover, no jurist of Madinah during 'Ᾱ'ishah's time took her statement as abrogating the default rule for women to visit the mosques. Soon after 'Ᾱ'ishah's times, when Imām Mālik of Madīnah was asked about the issue, he orated that women should never be prohibited from visiting the mosques. All this has been discussed in the fifth chapter of the book. If some scholars have preached (though wrongly) in favour of prohibiting women from visiting mosques based on the jurisprudential principle of Sadd al Dharī'ah, the present circumstances demand recourse to the alternative principle of Fatḥ al Dharī'ah not only to ensure the fulfillment of a right of women (to visit the mosque) but also to serve certain good purposes: remembering Allah, acquiring knowledge, meeting other women who frequent the mosques, public participation, etc. The next chapter addresses another narration used as an argument for preventing women from visiting the mosques. According to this narration, the Prophet told a woman Umm Humaid, that her prayer at home was better than in congregation. The author has done an exhaustive study of all the reports of this narration in different ḥadīth collections and brought home convincingly the particular context of this narration. He maintains that the Prophet did not intend to change the default rule for women to visit the mosques rather he attempted to resolve a marital discord between Umm Humaid and her husband. She used to walk a long distance five times a day to attend the congregational prayers in the mosque of the Prophet to which her husband objected.
The remaining chapters of the book also deal with some of the most sensational issues regarding women participation in the mosques, their interaction with men, some controversial narrations ridiculing women, segregation of sexes in mosque, specific dress code for women in mosque, etc. In nutshell, the present book is a timely response to one of the hot debates of present times arguing in favour of women participation in the mosques and against the other way around. It brings to limelight the status of women in Islam as reflected during the times of the Prophet. It is a must read for both the supporters as well as opponents of women participation in the mosques to understand the issue from the original sources of Islam from a jurisprudential point of view.
Reviewer is Doctoral Research Fellow, Dept. of Islamic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University,