November 22, 2016 Special Dispatch No. 6688

Saudi Academic: It's Time To End Gender Segregation In Mosques; Let's Make Mosques Similar To Churches!

November 22, 2016
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 6688

In a June 25, 2016 interview with the liberal Arab website Elaph, Dr. Najat Al-Sa'eed, a Saudi communications lecturer at Zayed University in Dubai, said that Islam is the only monotheistic religion that has not adapted to the modern age, and that this was not the fault of Islam but rather of Muslims, who are conservative. Hence, she said, the process of modernization must begin with the religion itself, by reforming the rituals of worship. For example, she suggested changing the internal layout of mosques so as to allow men and women to pray together, introducing codes of proper conduct and appearance in mosques, and installing seats and dim lighting that will create an atmosphere of spirituality and calm, like in a church.

Asked about the phenomenon of women imams, which exists in some Western countries, she answered that the Arab world should start with forming institutions of women jurisprudents, publishing books on religion written by women and airing religious television programs presented by women.

The following are excerpts from the interview:  

Question: "Is there any religious prohibition on changing the rationale behind the internal layout of mosques?" 

Answer: "From the religious perspective, there is no ban on changing the internal layout of the mosque as we know it in the Islamic world today, and besides, the layout differs from mosque to mosque. If the outer compounds of the Mecca [Grand] Mosque [could be] changed and expanded, why not change the internal design of mosques? The outer compounds of the [Grand] Mosque in Mecca are surrounded by ultra-modern skyscrapers. If you look at them from above, you realize that they resemble [the skyscrapers] of Manhattan in New York. According to a hadith narrated by Abu Al-Darda, the Prophet said: "Whatever Allah permitted in His book [the Koran] is allowed, and whatever is forbidden [in that book] is forbidden - and whatever He was silent about is pardoned, so accept the pardon of Allah.'" 

Question: "Is the absence of a [shared] internal space the only factor that prevents men and women from [worshiping] side by side in mosques?" 

Answer: "That may be one of the reasons, but I think that habit, and the adherence to customs and tradition, are [the real factors] that prevent men and women from doing this. Islam does not forbid them to mix, as evident from the fact that the Hajj and Umrah rituals are mixed and so is prayer at the Mecca compound. So why should they be segregated in other mosques? Any [reform] initiative of this sort is difficult in the beginning from the perspective of tradition, but from the religious perspective it is not forbidden. The main goal we should pursue is to enlighten society by studying Islam from a cultural perspective that fosters equality and mutual respect between men and women instead of segregating them as though they come from two different planets. Let's make mosques similar to churches!"

Men and women side by side in the compound surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca (Image:

Question: "Why don't you give us a detailed description of the mosque, as you see it in your minds' eye?" 

Answer: "I traced this picture for myself a long time ago. [I see] a spacious mosque with seats for those who come to read the Koran or listen to the sermon. The seating area will be divided into two sections, side by side, one for men and the other for women. In the prayer area there will be a pulpit for the preacher, and the lighting will be dim, to create an atmosphere of spirituality and inner calm. In the center of the mosque, in front of the seats, there will be a wide platform, slightly elevated, for prayer, divided into two parts: one for men and the other for women." 

Question: "[Don't you think] that the [introduction of] seats will perhaps anger the Muslims, even simple worshippers, because of the resemblance to the pews in a church?"

Answer: "Everything is difficult at first, but I do not  understand why Islamists and conservatives should object to seats in mosques when they do not object to the construction of Western-style skyscrapers around the [Grand] Mosque compound in Mecca, and do not regard this as changing the Islamic architectural features and replacing them with Western ones. It is unreasonable to object to having seats in a mosque [just] to avoid any resemblance to a church. After all, most moderate clerics preach tolerance and rapprochement between the religions, so why shouldn't a mosque resemble a church? Everyone [on earth] sits on chairs, and I have never heard that sitting on a chair is forbidden or reprehensible. I think it is civilized and good for one's feet, knees and back. Mosques should also have instructions [telling people] how to conduct themselves in terms of tidy appearance, decorum and performance of the purification rituals, so that the mosque does become filled with water."  

Question: "Who do you think will support your suggestion to change the traditional layout of the mosque?"     

Answer: "After I posted the idea on my Facebook page, I was actually surprised by the response, [which was] more positive than I had anticipated. I expect anyone who is interested in the restoration and renewal [of Muslim society] to support me. We have made many innovations in our lives. Our homes are different than they were in the past, and so are our buildings, our hotels and our markets. Everything is different, more modern in style. So why is reforming the layout of the mosque so difficult and impossible?"

Question: "Do you expect [your idea] to spark controversy, like any other expression of innovative thinking?" 

Answer: "In the beginning it may spark controversy, but if a mosque like this is built in some Arab or Muslim country, I am sure the idea will spread, because there is nothing in it that harms the religion. On the contrary, [such a mosque] has a more civilized appearance and will lend the Muslims a gentler image." 

Question: "When will it be possible to free Islam of notions and patterns that harm it more than they preserve it?" 

Answer: "Islam appeared in a desert region whose residents are distinguished by their conservativeness and their reluctance to accept change and advance towards modernity. That is why Islam is the only monotheistic religion that has not advanced [and adapted] to the modern age. It's not the religion but the believers. In order to gradually change the character of the people in this region we must start with the religious rituals. Muslims are distinguished by loudness and disorder, and men and women are not accustomed to gathering together in places of worship. Sadly, most Muslims' perception of women is fanatical and sexualized, far removed from  spirituality and rationality. Hence, building mosques of the type [I propose, and having men and women] meet each other in a spiritual environment on a regular basis, will improve the relationship between the sexes and will have a positive cultural impact on society as a whole. Getting used to sitting in chairs in an orderly manner and praying in soft voices under dim lighting will gradually refine Muslim behavior." 

Question: "What do you think of women leading public prayers [i.e., serving as imams]?"

Answer: "We have seen women leading public prayers and delivering sermons in mosques in Europe and the U.S.[1] The last of them was Yemeni academic Elham Manea, who delivered a sermon in a mosque in Switzerland. We have also heard of Amina Wadud, a lecturer on Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in America, who was the first woman to lead [a mixed congregation of] men and women in Friday prayers. This sparked wide controversy, but I think that before we can reach this stage, our Arab and Muslim societies must [first] accept the idea of women jurisprudents or women presenting religious [television] programs and answering viewers' questions about religion. So far, men have a monopoly in this sphere, and they exclusively dominate [the spheres of Koranic] exegesis, [religious] books, religious programs and jurisprudence.  How can society accept a woman leading Muslims in prayer when she is not allowed to issue religious rulings or present religious programs? Before discussing [women] leading prayers in mosques, let's begin by establishing an institution for women jurisprudents, and having women write books on religion and presenting religious programs. I would like to see a program on an Arabic satellite channel  presented by a woman versed in Islamic shari'a, such as Dr. Suhaila Zain Al-Abidin, for example."  




[1] On this, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6456, Woman Leading Friday Prayers In Switzerland Mosque Sparks Uproar On Social Media, June 3, 2016; Inquiry & Analysis Series No.227, First Mixed Friday Prayers Led by a Woman: Muslim Reactions to an Historical Precedent, June 22, 2005.


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