Those are the words of Pamela Taylor, a European-American female imam who embraced Islam twenty-five years ago. This past Tuesday, Taylor led a mixed congregation of 50 men, women, and children observing the Eid Al-Adha prayer. There was nothing particularly exceptional about the content of the annual prayer, or khootbah (sermon), that followed, but a female Imam leading men and women praying side-by-side is anything but typical.
Taylor and fellow members of Muslims for Progressive Values, an organization she co-founded in 2007, held the service at All Souls Unitarian Church in Northeast Washington, DC. Although Taylor and many others have led mixed congregations in prayer before (in Bahrain, Canada, South Africa, Spain, the UK, and the US), the topic remains highly contentious. The majority of Islamic scholars and schools of thought do not encourage Muslim female religious leaders and mixed-prayer spaces, citing a few hadith–narratives of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and actions–that discourage these practices.
Taylor, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and other Islamic scholars counter the majority perspective, offering other hadith citing women’s leading mixed congregations during Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. No verse in the Qur’an directly discusses the issues of female-led prayer or mixed congregations. Furthermore, while there are some hadith that nearly all Muslims agree upon, there are others that are highly disputed.
Regardless of hadith interpretation, there are some who support Taylor’s sentiment and struggle for female equity within Islamic practice, but question her tactics, calling for a less “confrontational” approach and exploring alternatives to having female-led prayers and mixed congregations. They argue that the backlash created by such an approach further displaces the importance of these issues within Islamic theological discourse as well as how these issues are viewed by the majority of Muslims. Taylor recently told Inside Islam her reasoning for her outspoken writing and activism on these issues.
“If prayer and other religious practices are the most important things for Muslims and they are only led by men, what does that say about the value of women? I’m sorry, but if a woman doesn’t have access to the highest position, that continues down into other aspects of life.”
Taylor cites three arguments for her activism on this issues. Female Imams should be allowed because:
1) If they are not, it creates an atmosphere where women’s leadership is devalued or at worse, prohibited;
2) It is an Islamic right based upon a hadith where the Prophet Muhammad asked a woman (Um Waraqa) to lead the people of her area in prayer; and
3)It is a matter of a woman’s fulfillment.
What do you think about Pamela Taylor’s approach to securing more rights and respect for women within an Islamic space? Are there parallel struggles of female religious leaders in other faiths? Do you have any experience yourself, as a Muslim or non-Muslim, where you felt like your rights were infringed upon in an Islamic context? Please share your thoughts and experiences.