This article attacks those mosques that do not have women’s areas.
If you haven’t read the article, no need to waste your time. There have been dozens of articles just like it over the past few years.
Discouraging women from attending and praying at masajid is a respected position in one of the four Sunni schools of fiqh. The position is based on, among other things, ahadith like:
Umm Salama (r) narrates that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “The best masjid for a woman is the inner part of her home.” (Musnad Ahmad)
The Prophet ﷺ also said: “A woman’s prayer in her inner room is better than her prayer in the outside room, and her prayer in the outside room is better than her prayer in the courtyard, and her prayer in the courtyard is better than her prayer in the Mosque.” (Mu’jam of Tabarani)
In his Musnad, Imam Ahmad also related that Umm Humayd came to the Prophet ﷺ and said: “O Messenger of Allah, I love to pray with you.” He said: “I know that you love to pray with me, but praying in your house is better for you than praying in your courtyard, and praying in your courtyard is better for you than praying in the mosque of your people, and praying in the mosque of your people is better for you than praying in my mosque.” So she ordered that a musalla be built for her in the furthest and darkest part of her house, and she always prayed there until she met Allah.”
The Prophet ﷺ also said: “Do not prevent your womenfolk from attending the masjid, even though their houses are better for them.” (Abu Dawud)
This latter hadith is cited in lay discussions to object to the Hanafi position, but the Hanafi argument rides on, among other things, the fact that Umar (r) issued a verdict banning women from the mosque in his time and the Companions accepted this. In addition, the Mother of the Believers, Aisha (r), made this important statement:
“If the Messenger of Allah ﷺ were alive to see what women are doing now, he would surely have prevented them from attending the prayers in the masjid just as the women of Bani Isra’il were prevented.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
Ironically, many of those today who claim that women’s scholarship is not valued also want to disregard the ijtihad of the foremost female scholar of Islam, our mother Aisha!
Now, the point of this post is not to argue for the Hanafi position on this issue of women attending the mosque. Please note that I am not claiming that all mosques should adopt the Hanafi position. My claim is simply that those mosques who do adopt that position should be able to do so without being bullied.
Many of you reading this might not accept that position and that is fine. I’m not Hanafi myself. That being said, the reality is all the madhahib restrict women’s attendance at the mosque in one form or fashion, so this is not just a Hanafi issue. For example, all the schools restrict women who are menstruating from staying in the mosque (though some scholars deemed passing through the mosque if there is a pressing need as permissible). Generally, scholars also mention conditions that Muslim women must meet in order go to the mosque in terms of how they are dressed, whether or not they are wearing perfume, jewelry, etc. Some scholars even stipulated that it is offensive for attractive women and even young women from attending the mosque. So this is by no means just a Hanafi issue. The other schools also discourage women from attending the masjid in certain circumstances.
Again, we do not need to wade into a detailed fiqh discussion for the purpose of this post. My point is simple: The Muslim community, including non-Hanafis, should acknowledge that discouraging women from attending the mosque is a valid position and that those masajid that adopt that position should not be attacked or ostracized. And certainly, no Muslim should use sensationalist media attention to create a public political scandal that will harm the Muslim community.
Mosques as Community Centers?
Let me switch gears and talk about the idea of discouraging women from attending the mosque. It might seem that this ruling is anti-women, that it aims to keep women away from learning and communal influence. But this is mistaken. Mosque attendance and learning/communal influence are not inherently linked. And arguably, they shouldn’t be linked since attending the mosque is not always possible or convenient for Muslim women, many of whom have to take care of young children and have other responsibilities.
In order to understand why, we have to understand the current sociopolitical context in the modern West versus the context of traditional Muslim societies. Many masajid in the US today, for example, are used as community centers and community gathering places for more than just prayer, dhikr, and study circles. Historically and traditionally speaking, this has not been the role of masajid. What has caused this shift?
Given that masajid are being used nowadays as social spaces, the idea of excluding women from these spaces is seen as highly objectionable. To bar women from the mosque is tantamount to barring women from the community itself and foreclosing on important opportunities for religious learning and socializing with other Muslims.
But it has to be asked: Is women’s attendance at the masjid the only way to achieve this end of intracommunity connection? Should it be?
Many of the communities that do discourage women from attending the masjid have developed many other avenues and opportunities to socialize as well as learn deen. If we look at the major madrasas in the US, most of them are led by Hanafi scholars and some of them discourage women from attending the mosque. Yet, these same madrasas are producing dozens of female scholars every year. In other words, women’s lack of presence in the mosque for congregational prayers has nothing to do with providing opportunities for women to learn and become scholars in their own right.
As for socializing and opportunities for communal gathering, these activities in traditional societies are generally facilitated in the family sphere in the home, not the mosque. If you have ever visited the Muslim world, you know how this works. Families are constantly visiting each other. Hardly a day goes by that you are not invited to a family member’s home or are hosting family yourself. Everyone is connected to their relatives and meets with them regularly. The community, in that context, is an extended network of families and neighbors. Many Muslim communities in the West have preserved this practice of community. This is especially the case for South Asians, who are predominantly Hanafi. Bottom line: In these contexts, neither women nor men need to attend the masjid in order to be plugged into the community.
No Place Like Home
What we see today is the atomization of families in modern Western society. No one is in contact with their extended family and this undoubtedly creates a need for socialization. In this context of disjointed nuclear families, for women to be discouraged from leaving the home is tantamount to consigning them to lonely solitude. But the same discouragement does not have any such negative implications in contexts where the majority of communal interaction happens within homes of extended family members.
We tend to see the home today as this empty space to be occupied by spouses and children between work/school hours. The home is where you eat dinner while watching TV and then go to sleep. But Islamically, this is an impoverished view of what the home represents. Consider the importance of sharing food with neighbors. The importance of hosting visitors and being generous to guests. These Islamic values that are so heavily emphasized in the Sunna represent a vision of the community that has at its center the home. So when the scholars of Islam (whether Hanafi or otherwise) explain that women should generally try to stay home unless necessary, in no way does this disenfranchise women or cut them off from the community. In fact, quite the opposite. It puts women at the center of the community and protects them.
It is only when homes become cold and empty that people naturally look for other places to get that same communal nourishment. These new mosques-as-community-centers have been the response in some parts of the ummah today. But is this just a band-aid solution to a much deeper problem: namely the collapse of the family and the home? Is a community center really supposed to replace the spiritual and communal nourishment that only the home can provide? Is the masjid-as-community-center inadvertently contributing to the problem in that they represent tacit acceptance of empty homes and the atomized status quo?
My purpose is not to bash Muslim community centers or any other kind of mosque. But I want us to think on a bigger scale and ask bigger questions about what community means and how families and their homes play an institutional role. We don’t think of our families and homes as institutions and that is part of the problem.
The Prophet ﷺ said: “Do not turn your houses into graveyards.” If we truly want to create Muslim communities akin to the ones of previous generations, we have to better understand the central, critical role of the home and the extended family relations that fill homes.
Allah says: “Would you then, if you were given the authority, do mischief in the land, and sever your ties of kinship? Such are they whom Allah has cursed, so that He has made them deaf and blinded their sight.’” Furthermore, how many times did the Prophet ﷺ encourage maintaining ties of kinship (silat al-rahim)?
“Learn enough about your lineage to facilitate keeping your ties of kinship. For indeed keeping the ties of kinship encourages affection among the relatives, increases the wealth, and increases the lifespan.” (Tirmidhi)
“Merely maintaining the ties of kinship is not adequate. But connecting the ties of kinship is when his ties to the womb are severed and he connects it.” (Tirmidhi)
And many other ayat and ahadith attest to the importance of extended family relations, i.e., ties of kinship. Implicit to maintaining ties of kinship is the physical space of the home.
Furthermore, being kind to neighbors and feeding them also happens in and around the home. The Prophet ﷺ said:
“A neighbor has the best claim to the house or land of the neighbor.” (Abu Dawud)
“The companion who is the best to Allah is the one who is best to his companion. And the neighbor that is the best to Allah is the one that is best to his neighbor.” (Tirmidhi)
All this and more show how elevated the home is in Islam and how critical it is for community. For Islam to also make the place of women the home is not to dishonor or subjugate women. In fact, just the opposite: It honors women and recognizes their place at the center of communal life and the Ummah itself.
With this understanding, we can easily push back against the tired old feminist narratives that have been used to attack Islam for 200 years now, ever since the dawn of colonialism. The colonialists and orientalists historically made these arguments about how Islam oppresses women by discouraging them from leaving the home. And there has always been self-hating, ignorant Muslims with internalized inferiority buying into this feminist narrative and thoughtlessly promoting it. Well, enough is enough. We know better than to allow those with an inferiority complex to make us feel inferior about the deen of Allah. It is their alternative model that is inferior in every way. Time for us to fully realize this.