You have probably heard about the Friday prayers in New York led by Dr.Amina Wadud. This event has started a flurry of activity among Muslims; College MSA’s are sending lists of fatwas against this “fitna” to their mailing lists, bloggers are writing about it on their weblogs, and so on.
I am not going to argue for or against here, but let me make a few general comments. Hina Azam is indeed correct that the traditional methods of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) must be engaged to make a cogent argument. I think there hasn’t been much good work providing a vision and structure to modernist Islam in this direction. However, at the same time, limiting oneself to traditional fiqh could be too rigid and legalistic. There are some interesting issues in this discussion and I might return to it when I review Dr. Fazlur Rahman’s book ‘Islam’.
Among the arguments I have read against a woman leading prayers is that Islam gave women rights 1400 years ago. This is not strictly true, at least not in the sense we understand women’s rights today. Islam did set some basic parameters , but the rest of the progress is up to us. As I have written before, I do not think that Islam, as a practical matter i.e. as practiced by actual Muslims, was ever perfect or even can be perfect, but we as human beings have made some progress in minority rights, women rights, etc. and the practice of Islam would (and should) improve with these developments. The rigid idea that Islamic practice, whether women’s rights, slavery or other issues, was fixed in the 7th century (Salafi idea) or the 10th century (traditionalism) is really quite problematic. This obviously does not mean that we discard everything from the Quran, Hadith (narrations of Prophet Muhammad) or even fiqh. But we do need some fresh perspective. Again, this is something Fazlur Rahman discusses in his book.
A common refrain (shades of Larry Summers?) of some Muslims is that men and women are different. While it is true that gender has a genetic basis, there is a strong social aspect to gender conditioning as well. Plus should we generalize to all men and women? Am I a “girly man” for spending time with and taking care of my daughter? How much should the alleged differences between men and women determine the difference in social responsibilities or legal rights? The concept sounds somewhat like “separate but equal,” which is a great way to discriminate against any group.
I have also heard that this act won’t help Muslim women’s rights, which is true as far as that goes. The act of a woman leading mixed prayers is more symbolic than anything else. Symbolism has its uses and benefits but its impact is also at times blown out of proportion. A related criticism is that this was a media stunt. I am not familiar with any of the organizers, other than from reading Muslim Wakeup once in a while. So I can’t say anything about their motives. But media and publicity are absolutely necessary for symbolic acts like this. After all, it’s the media that made this an event everyone knows about.