A visiting professor has sparked protests from many members of the Muslim community after she became the first woman in Britain to lead an Islamic prayer service.

Amina Wadud arrived in Oxford on Friday to perform the service before a mixed congregation of men and women at Wolfson College.

The event marked the start of a conference on Islam and feminism at the college and has provoked mosques throughout the country to weigh into the debate.

A Muslim student at Oxford opposed the event, saying, “It is clearly stipulated in law, with agreement from the majority of Islamic schools of thought, that amongst the main factors in choosing an Imam, or leader of prayer, are being male, just, and having a good command of the Arabic language.”

He added that though there is no direct reference in the Qu’ran to suggest that a woman leading the congregational prayer is not allowed, the Qu’ran is not the sole basis upon which Islamic law is based upon.

He said, “Muslims extract law not only from the Holy Qu’ran, but also from the teachings of the Prophet and his progeny.”

He continued, “Islam venerates women, whether they be mothers or policy makers” and “promotes scholarship, as evident by the female academics in Islam at Al Azhar University.”

However, he continued that there is “no historical or theological basis to women leading mixed congregational prayer.”

Professor Wadud first delivered a Friday sermon in South Africa in August 1994 and, after leading a service in New York three years ago, received death threats from some extremists.

Traditionally, only male Imams hold mixed service.
Whereas women are allowed to lead the prayer for other women, men have to lead the prayer for a mixed congregation.

Dr. Taj Hargey, Chairman of the Muslim Educational Centre Oxford (MECO), who invited Amina Wadud to lead the prayers, argued that there should be no gender inequality, and the person leading the prayers should simply be the most qualified person.

He stated that he “believe(s) in equity” and that this event was a “fundamental success” for encouraging gender equality in Islam.

He claimed that he intentionally invited her “to promote theological self-empowerment and to challenge Wahhabi extremism.”

Dr. Hargey said he had expected the response as a result of “theological extremism”, but argued that they have no relevance to 21st century Britain.

However, Mokhtar Badri, the vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain, said, “With all respect to Sister Amina, prayer is something we perform in accordance to the teachings of our Lord.

“It has nothing to do with position of women in society. It is not to degrade them or because we don’t think they are up to it.”

Nawaz Ahmad, President of the Oxford University Islamic Society, explained that some schools of thought believe “the reason for the prohibition for women to lead prayers is based on a statement of the prophet that men are to stand in front of women, and the imam (prayer leader) must stand in front of the congregation.”

Another Muslim student added, “this is due to one of the fundamentals of religion, modesty.”

He added that hijab and the headscarf are based on similar reasoning.

Despite the protests, Dr. Hargey is confident that the event is a successful step forward equivalent to that made by Emmeline Pankhurst.

He declared his intention to organise an event like this each year until a notable change in conservative Islam occurs.

Photo: Mark Bassett