YORK - Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday that marks the
end of Ramadan, was a day of many firsts for Laury
Silvers, a practicing Muslim and professor of Islam at
Skidmore College. It was the first time that she had
ever prayed beside a man. It was the first time that
she had ever led a sermon, or khutbah, and the first
time that she had ever been led in prayer by a woman,
signals the beginning of the end of an entitled male
authority in Islam," Silvers said. "It's a
huge step toward shared authority. This is a profound
new way of thinking."
traditional Islamic jurists prohibit women from
leading prayer, particularly in the presence of men,
some communities around the world are challenging the
status quo. A small but growing movement is pushing
traditional boundaries with a smattering of services
led by women. In Washington, Karamah, an organization
of female Muslim lawyers, is host to a
leadership-development program in which women learn
about Islamic law and conflict resolution in the hope
of fostering female leadership.
far there are no known female imams - religious
figures who lead prayers in a mosque - in North
America. But for some, the day when men and women will
pray side by side with equal leadership seems
just a matter of time," said Pamela Taylor, a
co-chair of the Progressive Muslim Union of North
America, which sponsors a women-led prayer initiative.
"I think it will be the mainstream."
are female imams already in China and Germany, but
they lead only women for the most part. In May, 50
female clerics, authorized by the Moroccan government
to give sermons to both genders but not to lead
prayers, graduated from a seminary in Rabat. A small
movement to promote female clerics started in South
Africa in the mid-1990s, and women have led prayer
groups in Spain.
the United States, the movement started with an uproar
when Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic Studies at
Virginia Commonwealth University, led a mixed-gender
prayer in New York in March 2005.
event sparked a flurry of publicity; fatwas, or legal
opinions; and even death threats against Wadud and her
it was shock and awe, especially from the males,"
said Raheel Raza, a Pakistan-born freelance journalist
in Toronto who has since led congregations of men and
women. "Sometimes a person has to do something
that is considered radical to get the whole process
being invited by two Toronto Muslim organizations,
Raza became the first woman in Canada to lead
mixed-gender Friday prayers in April 2005. Raza had
led many interfaith prayer services in churches,
temples and synagogues, but never among a Muslim-only
idea of doing this was only to set a precedent,"
Raza said. "To say that men and women are
spiritually equal in the eyes of God. That's what I
got from the Quran."
who support women leading prayers note that the Quran,
the sacred text of Islam, does not forbid female
spiritual leadership. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a leading
scholar of Islamic law at UCLA, issued a fatwa in
favor of women-led prayer.
is evidence," he wrote, "that the Prophet on
more than one occasion allowed a woman to lead her
household in prayer - although the household included
men - when the woman was clearly the most learned in
a taboo against female spiritual leaders has
is a thing that happens at a time when the entire
Muslim world is under siege," said Aminah
McCloud, the director of the Islamic World Studies
program at DePaul University. "With that they are
holding fast to unexamined and unreflected-upon
the wake of the Wadud prayer, Imam Zaid Shakir, a
prominent American Islamic scholar, wrote: "A
woman leading a mixed gender, public congregational
prayer is not something sanctioned by Islamic
since the Quran does not forbid female leadership,
scholars look to the hadith, a collection of sayings
and actions attributed to Muhammad, for answers. But
McCloud said that the hadith offers insights that
could be used for and against female imams.
some cases, scholars state that women are allowed to
lead prayer only if they stand behind the
congregation, rather than in front, so as not to
distract the men present as she kneels before them.
Silvers, a co-founder of ProgressiveIslam.org, said
that scholars and opponents were more open to debate
and discussion than before.
they're no longer feeling like the sky is
falling," said Silvers, who is the subject of a
documentary about American Muslim converts currently
being filmed by Mark Ezovski, a director in Brooklyn.
"There's the opportunity now to talk more at
length about it. We're getting a wider range of
Jackson, of Malden, Mass., has led prayers a few times
after attending the Wadud prayer and said that most of
the feedback is now positive. "The people who
voiced opposition have gotten quieter," she said.
"And they are no longer speaking
who calls the work she does a "silent
revolution," said she and other women hope one
day to become imams. "My dream is to win the
lottery and have a mosque or sacred space for women by
women," she said, stressing her desire to seek
the Web's largest nondenominational spirituality site,
asked Taylor, who holds a master's degree in Islamic
studies from Harvard Divinity School, to write 24
spirituality exercises for Muslims. She has also
thought about becoming a chaplain at a university,
hospital or jail. Taylor has also led mixed-gender
prayers a few times. At one such service, her
11-year-old daughter was asked to give the call to
prayer, a duty usually reserved for men or boys.
was just so affirming," Taylor said.
echoed that sentiment.
the history of Islam there have been women leaders,
even the Prophet's daughter," she said. "But
unfortunately, for 1,400 years men have spoken for us
and told us what our rights or lack of them are. It's
time for Muslim women to reclaim those rights and
speak for ourselves, and that is what I'm trying to