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The Inclusion of Women in Masjids

Background: Over the decades, individual members of the Fiqh Council have responded to questions about the involvement of women in the masjid. However, no fatwa has been formally rendered concerning many of these issues. The Fiqh Council, therefore, has decided to take three questions, and provide a response to these questions in the form of an official fatwa.

Question: Some individuals believe that Muslim women should be discouraged from attending the masjid. What is the ruling about women attending the masjid?

Response: Women should not be restricted from attending the masjid, and in fact should be encouraged to attend the masjid.

The active presence of women in the masjid during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saaws) is well documented and clearly evidenced in numerous hadith. If the Prophet Muhammad had clearly indicated his desire that women not attend the masjid, there is no doubt that they would have refrained from coming to the masjid. 

There are many Ahadith confirming that in the Prophet’s masjid, women prayed salah regularly, attended Jum’ah Prayer, prayed optional prayers (nawafil) in the masjid, performed i’tikaf in the masjid during Ramadan, met in the masjid, and even brought their children for salah.

  • Al-Bukhari and Muslim.  “Allow the women to attend the masjid at night.”  Ibn Hajar in Fath al-Bari commented, “His statement ‘at night’ is an indication that they did not prevent them during the daytime” (2:67).
  • Muslim.  “Umm Hisham said that ‘I learned Surah Qaf only from the tongue of the Messenger of Allah (saaws) who recited it every Jum’ah from the minbar when he addressed the people.”
  • Al-Bukhari and Muslim.  “Anas said, the Messenger of Allah (saaws) entered the masjid and there was a rope tied to two columns.  He said, ‘What is this?’  They said, “It belongs to Zainab.  She offers salah and when she feels tired or weary, she holds on to it….’”
  • Al-Bukhari and Muslim.  “Hafsah asked permission of Aishah to pitch a tent for her [for I’tikaf] and she allowed her and she pitched her tent.  When Zainab saw it, she pitched another tent….”
  • Al-Tirmidhi who said the hadith is hasan.  “Asma bint Yazid narrated that the Messenger of Allah (saaws) passed through the masjid one day, and a group of women were sitting, and he waved his hand giving salam.”
  • The Prophet (saaws) demonstrated the welcoming nature of his masjid for women by shortening prayers when children started crying.  Al-Bukhari and Muslim.  “Anas narrated, I never offered salah behind any Imam with a more brief yet complete salah than the Prophet.  And if he heard the crying of a child he used to shorten the prayer so his mother would not be tried.”

The general guideline was set by Prophet Muhammad (saaws) when he ordered that women be allowed to freely attend the masjid. In Sahih Muslim, this hadith is reported: the Prophet Muhammad (saaws) said, “Do not prevent the female servants of Allah from the masjids of Allah….” When Ibn Umar recited the hadith, “If the wife of anyone of you asks permission to attend the masjid, he should not prevent her,” his son, Bilal, responded to this hadith by saying “We will prevent them.” Ibn Umar harshly reprimanded his son for the audacity of opposing the explicit instruction of the Prophet (saaws).

To help facilitate a healthy environment and avoid temptation, the Messenger of Allah (saaws) instructed both men and women to dress properly, lower their gaze and guard their modesty. Women received an additional instruction not to wear perfume when attending the masjid. In Sahih Muslim, The Prophet (saaws) said, “Do not prevent the female servants of Allah from the masjids of Allah, but they should not go out perfumed.”

The hadith that “the best prayer of a woman is in her house,” cannot be taken as a general guideline, because the great female companions, including the Prophet’s wives, prayed in the Prophet’s masjid. If the hadith was supposed to apply to all women, the wives of the Prophet (saaws) and the female companions would not have gone to the masjid. The best understanding of this hadith, therefore, is that an allowance exists for some women to pray at home depending on their circumstances (such as Umm Humaid who was instructed to pray in her home), but it cannot be interpreted as a ruling for all women at all times.

In the same vein, Sayyidah Aishah’s remarks that “had the Prophet known what women were innovating, he would have forbidden them from attending the masjid,” cannot be taken as a general guideline, altering the Prophet’s practice of including women in the masjid, because speculation of what the Prophet (saaws) might have intended cannot be used as a proof (see al-Shawkani’s Nail al-Awtar, 3:162). Sayyidah Aishah in fact did not explicitly say, women should be prevented from attending the masjid, and it is known that the Rightly-Guided Caliphs did not prevent women, and that women continued to attend the masjid during the time of the blessed wife of Muhammad, Sayyidah Aishah, and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs. This hadith in fact confirms the general principle that women are allowed to attend the masjid as long as they fulfill the instructions of dressing properly and avoiding perfume.

The underlying concern of many scholars is the avoidance of fitnah (trial). However, in the American context, where society often pulls Muslims away from Islam and where women and men have many choices of where to go and how to spend their time, the best choice to avoid fitnah for everyone is to spend more time in the masjid where they will hopefully become better Muslims and lend a hand to growing the Muslim community. 

Masjids, therefore, should be welcoming to women—such that their experience at the masjid be uplifting and not demeaning. To realize the ideal of being welcoming to women, masjids should (a) ensure that women’s accommodations are comfortable, clean and well-lit; (b) support and facilitate women’s activities and groups; and (c) proclaim clearly on the minbar and by other means that women are welcomed and encouraged to attend the masjid. 

Question: Should women be allowed to pray in the same prayer space as men, or should they pray behind a barrier? 

Response: Women should be allowed to pray in the main musalla with men, praying behind the men with no barrier in-between men and women, as it was the practice of Prophet Muhammad (saaws). The best procedure for masjids is to give women a choice to pray in the same prayer space as men or behind a barrier.

It is well-documented that the masjid of Prophet Muhammad (saaws) and the masjids during the time of the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs did not have a barrier separating men and women. Men prayed in the front lines, children in the middle, and women behind the children. So why should we adopt any other ideal? When women are in the main musalla, they are naturally more attentive and more engaged, and thus they are better able to be inspired, to learn, and to fulfill their function as supporters and contributors to establishing the Muslim community.

Some Muslims argue that the barrier is necessary to guard against fitnah (temptation). However the Prophet (saaws) never stated that a women’s presence in the mosque in and of itself is a source of fitnah. The general instruction in the Qur’an to men to avoid fitna is to lower their gaze—not to put a physical barrier that blocks women from the main musalla. The benefit in the rule of having women engaged in the masjid outweighed some hypothetical possibility of fitnah.

Although the architecture of some masjids may make it difficult to find a barrier-free space for women in the main musalla, especially for Jum’ah, masjids still have the duty to find a solution to realize the sunnah of including women in the main musalla.

Question: Can women serve on masjid boards?

Response: Women are permitted and encouraged to serve on masjid boards.

Allah gave the general command to the Prophet (saaws) and the Muslims to conduct their affairs by shura; and necessarily shura includes women. Allah states in Quran that believing men and women are partners in establishing Islam. 

The believing men and the believing women are awliya’ (supporters, helpers, protectors, patrons) of one another: they (men and women) enjoin what is known to be good and forbid what is known to be bad; they establish salah and pay zakah; and they obey Allah and His Messenger. These are the ones on whom Allah will bestow mercy—indeed Allah is exalted in power, wise (9:71).

This verse clearly sets the general principle that believing men and women support one another in the great mission of Islam—striving for good, opposing evil, and establishing the pillars of salah and zakah. Thus Muslim men and women are partners in establishing the faithful Muslim community—both are needed, both are essential. There are also other Qur’anic verses (e.g. 9:18, 7:31) which establish the general principle that it is the believing Muslims—men and women—who maintain and frequent the masjids.

Being partners in establishing Islam, the voice of women must be present in the deliberations of the Muslim community. Confirming this point, Allah states the general principle that Muslims are to make decisions based on shura, which would necessarily include women: “their (the Muslims’) affairs are conducted by shura amongst themselves” (42:38).  The Prophet did not have a formal shura process, but he set the example of consulting with all segments of the Muslim community, including women. Masjids in North America, however, do have formal decision-making mechanisms, and it is, therefore, incumbent that women participate in all processes of formal shura, including serving on the governing bodies of masjids. Of course the men and women who serve on masjid boards should have basic Islamic moral character to be role models for others. From an American legal standpoint and a best practice perspective, masjid boards should be representative and gender inclusive. In addition masjids are encouraged to create positions of official authority and influence for women, whereby the community at large can benefit from their talents, expertise, moral example and experience.

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