By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwī
During a recent teaching visit to Bradford I came to know about the project to set up, in this city, a women’s mosque and centre for excellence (ihsan). I was able to meet some of the women leading this project and they explained to me their need for it and their hopes for it.
In some of my published writing I have shown in detail, and with abundant evidence, that in the best times for this Community – when the example of generations nearest to the period of the revelation of the Qur’an informed the ideals and norms of society – women had a strong presence in the mosques. They were present both to attend the regular prayer services and, also, to teach and study the religion. The emphasis of my work was the muhaddithat, the women experts in the hadith and the sunnahs of the Prophet, upon him be peace. I have shown, through the documents still available – such as class registers, ijazahs, and the like – that the authority of women to teach in the great madrasas and mosques of the great cities of Islam, including the Prophet’s own mosque in Madinah, was easily and widely accepted. The women were devout, dedicated teachers, both of other women and of men. Many of the most well-known, mainstream scholars, such as the famous Qur’an commentator Ibn Kathir, had studied the religion with women teachers and held them in the highest esteem, and they expressed their appreciation and gratitude in writing. All of this is in the historical record and that record is available to us.
Sadly, from the tenth–eleventh Islamic century onwards to our day, the presence of women in the mosques and teaching institutions of the religion, has been in sharp decline. The norms and ideals have changed to the extent that we are now told that it is better for women to pray at home, not in the mosques. We are told that it is permissible for them to pray in the mosques, but it is not commended, rather it is discouraged. Some go even further and say that is not permissible (let alone commended) for women to come to the mosques, either for the prayers, or for religious instruction. That is the reverse of the sunnah of the first Muslims.
When Muslims abandon a sunnah of their Prophet, upon him be peace, another custom, not authorised in the religion, is adopted in its place. Then, the love for the Prophet, and the desire to obey his instruction and follow his example, begins to weaken. Allah promised to protect His Messenger from error – that is a part of His protection of the Book that He revealed to him – and His promise is true. When the Muslims abandon the sunnahs of His Messenger, they step out of the circle of safety which protects them from error and the consequences of error. This is so whether one individual abandons a sunnah or if a whole community does so. But in the latter case, the consequences are far more grave, more far-reaching, and more long-lasting.
The believers’ highest dignity, and their first responsibility after belief itself, is worship. It is hard to imagine a greater indignity for any believer than to be turned away from a mosque. It is utterly impossible that the Prophet, upon him peace, would ever teach his Companions to turn anyone away from a mosque because they were poor and not rich, or a slave and not a free person, or black and not white, or non-Arab and not Arab, or a woman and not a man. Nevertheless, this dreadful indignity is, in our time and in some of our communities, imposed on women, and this act of disrespect expands into other injustices in the attitudes to women, and the treatment of them, that are all too familiar. Such injustices are part of the consequences our communities must bear when we abandon the protection and safety of the sunnahs.
The need for women to go to the mosques for the daily prayers, to take part in study circles, to encourage and be encouraged by other Muslims to live their religion seriously – is neither more nor less than the same need in men. This need must be met; it is a religious duty. The lack of provision, and the lack of welcome, for women in the mosques that we have, is the main reason for this project – to have a space for women, where they can worship together, where they can encourage one another to study the religion and improve their understanding and practice of it. It is an initiative that deserves to be supported financially and morally by both men and women. I admire and appreciate the intention, and the will and determination, of those leading this project. In sha’a Allah it will be a success.
As I said above, the Prophet, upon him be peace, did not teach us to shut the doors of the mosque to anyone. Just because some mosques in our time and place shut their doors to women does not justify this women’s mosque from shutting its doors to men. Rather, any space called a mosque must strive to be a place of assembly, of unity, for the Muslims of a neighbourhood. Thus, I hope that, at the times of the prayers, the doors of this mosque will not be shut to men. That is an important principle. The rest of the time, it can be a space reserved for the women of the neighbourhood, where they gather for social, devotional and educational purposes, organise study circles, hold public meetings and lectures, and discuss policies and actions to help the wider community.
I hope this mosque can be a space where women help one another to come nearer to their Lord in their worship and in all their activities within and outside that space. I hope that men as well as women give this mosque the welcome and support that it deserves. And I pray to Allah to accept it and make it a means for the improvement of the iman and din, the faith and religion, of all who use it.