UK - First Woman to Lead Muslim Prayers Angers Traditionalists

By Amol Rajan
17 October 2008

UK - Islamic history will be made in the heart of Oxford today when a woman Muslim scholar leads Friday prayers and delivers the khutba, or sermon, for the first time in Britain.

Professor Amina Wadud, visiting scholar at the Starr King School of the Ministry, Berkeley, California, received death threats after she led a service in New York three years ago. That event was held at an Anglican church after mosques refused to host it.

At 1pm today on Oxford's Banbury Road, Ms Wadud will deliver a sermon at the start of a conference on Islam and feminism at the University's Wolfson College. Organised by the Muslim Educational Centre Oxford (Meco), the event has attracted fierce criticism from traditionalists, who claim that the Koran insists on men leading prayers.

Police will be on hand to ensure protests do not spill over into violence.

Taj Hargey, a veteran of anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa currently engaged in post-doctoral research at Wolfson College, is Meco's chairman. "Our situation is simple," Mr Hargey said. "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."

Born in 1952 to a Methodist father and a mother of Muslim heritage in Maryland, Ms Wadud, who has written books on the Koran and memorised most of it, first delivered a Friday sermon in Cape Town, South Africa, in August 1994. Seen as a pioneering feminist, her last book, Inside The Gender Jihad: Women's Reform In Islam (2006) was partly an experiment in autobiography, and included details of the threats to her life in New York.

That sermon, delivered to about 100 men and women, led to a concerted attempt by some Muslim scholars to have her removed from the academic position she then held at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Today, she will be speaking on justice to several hundred men and women, and her sermon having a mixed audience has angered Conservative members of the Muslim community. Mokh-tar Badri, 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 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."

Last week, Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "We have no dealings with Taj Hargey. His organisation has no affiliation with mainstream groups in this country."

Meco has 200 supporters. Its chairman is no stranger to controversy. In 1983, Mr Hargey was jailed in his native Cape Town for anti-apartheid protests.

"Look at what [suffragette] Emmeline Pankhurst did," he said. "People told her she was mad but now we worship her. In time people will say similar things about Amina Wadud."

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