Friday, 17 October 2008

History and controversy in Oxford as a woman prepares to lead Islamic Friday prayers

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At 1pm today, the city of Oxford will play host to an historic moment as a woman leads Friday prayers before a congregation of men and women at Wolfson College, the first time this has happened in Britain.

Professor Amina Wadud, visiting scholar at the Starr King School of the Ministry, Berkeley, California, will lead the Friday prayers and deliver a sermon at the start of a conference organised by the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford. The last time Wadud did a similar thing, in New York in 2005, Mosques refused to host it, meaning she had to do it in an Anglican Church, and she received death threats.

The idea of a woman leading prayer is extremely controversial, as many Muslims believe it is prohibited by the sacred texts of Islam. With this is mind, protests are expected in Oxford today and there will be strong security surrounding the event.

The chair of the Muslim Education Centre is Taj Hargey, who was involved with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Speaking to the media, he has sought to dismiss the arguments against a woman leading prayer, suggesting outspoken opponents represent the strongly conservative strands of Islam:
"Our situation is simple. The golden rule of the Koran is that whatever is not expressly prohibited is permitted. Literalists interpret the Hadith [the sayings of Prophet Muhammad] as implying a woman should never lead a community. But even within the Hadith there is a woman called Umm Waraqa whom the Prophet allowed to lead prayers in a household and to teach her neighbour. Though it recognises biological differences between men and women, the Koran absolutely specifies gender egalitarianism. The people opposing this are the Wahhabi, Deobandi; misogynistic segments of Islam. They don't believe in the innate equality of men and women."
However, Mokh-tar Badri, vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain, takes issue with Hargey's stance:
"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 the position of women in society. It is not to degrade them. This is something divine, not human. We do it the way it has been ordained by God. Women can lead prayers before other women but before a congregation of men and women, a man must lead. This is not confined to Islam. Catholics don't appreciate female priests."
Readers familiar with Islamic groups in this country probably wont be surprised to learn that Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain also seems opposed to today's events, having said "We have no dealings with Taj Hargey. His organisation has no affiliation with mainstream groups in this country."