A woman breaks a taboo

Observations on Islam

Never in Islam's recently recorded history have women led prayers. Nor have they prayed alongside men in the main body of a congregation. But on Friday 18 March, Amina Wadud, a feminist scholar of the Koran, led a congregation of 100 people - a third of whom were women - in a New York cathedral. It couldn't have been held in a mosque because none would have her. An art gallery owned by a supporter of Dr Wadud's movement was initially lined up as a venue, but received bomb threats. The cathedral needed a police guard.

But it went ahead and, delivering the sermon that precedes the congregational noon prayers that are the highlight of the Muslim week, Dr Wadud even dared to ask if Allah was a man. Muslim women normally enter mosques by the side door and file upstairs, sideways or downstairs to rooms on the periphery, where they will hear the imam's voice from a loudspeaker. If they do pray in the mosque's main body, it is in the back rows. Since women have household chores to do, their presence in the mosque has never been mandatory and, if menstruating, they are forbidden to enter.

After years spent analysing the Koran, Dr Wadud concluded that "nothing in the life of the Prophet - upon whom be blessings - prevents a woman from leading the prayers of Muslims". But in New York, protesters were clear that, as one man put it, "if this was an Islamic state, this woman would be hanged". The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood mosque in Harlem damned the prayer as a "publicity stunt", while on al-Jazeera the conservative scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi condemned it.

Muslims of differing persuasions are marshalling obscure sentences and anecdotes from diverse Islamic documents. The Koran does not directly address whether women can lead congregational prayer, but sections of the Sunnah, the recorded teachings and actions of Muhammad, can be used either to support or challenge the notion. Some argue that the Prophet gave permission to women to lead any kind of prayer, others say he restricted the practice to prayer at home.

Dr Wadud quotes the case of Umm Waraqa, a seventh-century woman said to have been given permission by Muhammad to lead her household - apparently including male slaves at least - in prayer. Conservative Muslims reply that any female leader today would have to seek the same approval, which is obviously impossible. Sheikh Sayed Tantawi of Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque elaborated: Islam permits women to lead other women in prayer, but not a congregation with men in it. He said: "When she leads men in prayer, it's not proper for them to look at the woman whose body is in front of them. Even if they see it in their daily life, it shouldn't be in situations of worship, where the main point is humility and modesty." That Dr Wadud was veiled and wore flowing robes was not put to him.