June 3, 2016 Special Dispatch No. 6456

Woman Leading Friday Prayers In Switzerland Mosque Sparks Uproar On Social Media

June 3, 2016
Special Dispatch No. 6456

On May 27, 2016, Dr. Elham Manea, a Yemeni liberal activist residing in Switzerland, reported on her Twitter and Facebook accounts that, at the House of Religions in Bern, a woman had led a mixed congregation of men and women in Friday prayers. The prayer was led by Halima Gosai Hussain, who is the chair in Britain of a project called the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI). After the prayers, Elham Manea herself delivered the Friday sermon. The call to prayer was also performed by a woman. In addition, the service included musical interludes, another feature that is not a part of mainstream Islam. 

The Friday prayer led by a woman at the House of Religions in Bern (images:

 In the sermon she delivered after the prayer, Dr. Manea called upon Muslim men and women to reject the claims of Muslim clerics that a woman may not serve as prayer leader and that men and women may not pray side by side in mosques. She also urged the women not to wait passively for change to come but to demand it and bring it about themselves.

The news of a Friday service led by a woman and accompanied by music caused a furor on social media. Many responders harshly criticized Manea and the others who participated in the service, accusing them of heresy and showering them with curses and invective. In response to these attacks, Manea posted an article on the Al-Hiwar website and on her Facebook page in which she repeated what she had said in the Friday sermon and stressed that all she and the other participants had done was pray to Allah.

It should be noted that this is the not the first time a woman has led Friday prayers at a mosque. On February 12 this year, it was reported that Danish-born Muslim activist Sherin Khankan had opened the Miriam Mosque in Copenhagen, which offers Friday services led by women and for women only. Khankan said that she sought to challenge the patriarchal character that dominates Islam's religious institutions - just as it dominates other religions - and stressed that the responses of Copenhagen's Muslims to the opening of the mosque were positive and that criticism was "mild."[1]

The first woman-led prayers were held over a decade ago, on March 18, 2005, when Dr. Amina Wadud, an American Muslim of Indian origin who is professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led a service for a mixed congregation in New York. The Friday prayers were held at a church in New York City, after several mosques had refused to host it, due to threats by extremists. The call to prayer was also performed by a woman, who in addition to setting this precedent did so with her head uncovered. The service was attended by some 100 men and women. The main organizer of the event was Asra Nomani, an Indian-born Muslim author. The organizers stated that their aim was to set the question of equal rights for women and men on the Muslim agenda, and stressed that women were entitled to be spiritual leaders in Islam. A week later, Friday prayers were again led by a woman, this time in Boston, by an American Muslim named Nakia Jackson. Also during this week, Asra Nomani herself led a mixed congregation in prayers at Brandeis University, and stated that she would continue to organize similar women-led prayers throughout the U.S.[2]

Dr. Manea In Her Sermon: Women Should Pray In Mosques Just Like Men; They Must Demand Change Today

The following are translated excerpts from Dr. Elham Manea's May 27 sermon at the mosque in Bern: "Let me start with the story of Frieda Hirschi from Switzerland; At 17, she learned the profession of dressmaker -  a good profession, respectable, and suitable for a girl her age. At that time, it was expected of women, whether in church or at community meetings, to be silent. They had to submit to the patriarchal order. Had she told her community that one day she would study theology and become a pastor -  that she would have her own church and religious community - they would have told her: 'You are dreaming of the moon -  and women do not fly to the moon.'

"Well -  Pastor Frieda Hirschi dared to dream, and today she is sitting with us in this gathering. A woman leading a community in a church. She did fly to the moon!

"Likewise, we are told now that a woman cannot serve as an imam at communal [i.e. mixed-gender] prayers. We are told that the jurists -  all male - agreed that a woman cannot lead a prayer, let alone a Friday prayer. 'There is a consensus,' they say, basing their consensus on a tradition attributed to the Prophet: 'A people led by a woman will not prosper.' This tradition, by the way, is considered weak, that is, [the Prophet] might not have said it after all. However, weak traditions miraculously become hard truths when they concern women.

"We are also told, 'This is not an appropriate time to raise such trivial issues. There are more urgent and serious issues that must be addressed. Let us not raise issues that lead to discord - we need to be united!'

"I understand that change is difficult. If you are used to doing the same thing for centuries, of course it will be difficult to change these ways. I also understand that change frightens us... But I am tired. I am tired of waiting, hoping that one day we will change. For change can only come if we demand it. Change can only come if we claim our rights.

"The time has come to challenge our assumptions about women's role in a house of God and in society. Where, how, and when a woman is asked to pray mirror her social status in her community! A mosque in which you only see men praying is a mirror of a patriarchal society where men control the public space... Therefore, a woman demanding to pray in the same space where men are praying is not demanding something trivial. She is demanding a change in that social order, and of her place in it.  What is absurd is that in the 70s, here in Bern, women and men used to pray together in the only mosque that was available then... But money began flowing from the Gulf, and the extremist Wahhabi interpretation [of Islam] began to prevail, and step by step the mosque changed, until one day a wall was erected separating men from women. Then, we prayed together; now we are told it is not possible!

"The time for change is now, not tomorrow, not in a month, not in a year. Now! The time for change is today.

"We are calling for it respectfully; we are calling for it in a message of love to our religion and our community, and of love for the universal principle of equality. Because when I pray, I pray as a human being, not as a female. I stand alongside another human being, not a man, and we pray together as equals before God - a God without gender, a God of equality.

"My dear men and women, we too are flying to the moon..."[3]

Dr. Elham Manea delivering the sermon in Bern (image:

Dr. Manea In Response To The Attacks: What Have We Done That You Curse Us And Accuse Us Of Heresy?

As stated, the news of the event sparked scathing responses on social media against the participants and especially against Manea herself, including curses and accusations of heresy. Manea responded to these attacks in an article she posted on the Al-Hiwar website. She wrote: "What have we done? I ask you, both men and women: by Allah, where do all these anger, curses, threats and hurtful words come from? Just what have we done?...

"By Allah, I love you even though you are cursing me, because I understand that your responses are motivated by [your] fear for our religion. You think that we want to harm our religion. Yes, this is our religion just as it is yours. And that is why I ask you to listen to me, without fear and without doubting my intentions...

"[All we did was] pray to Allah the Almighty. We kneeled before Allah in submission, both men and women. We were believing men and women. That is all we did. We listened to spiritual oud music played by a musician who is not part of this initiative. It is important that you know that, so [nobody] harms him just for being present in that hall. Spiritual oud music is steeped in anguish and longing for Allah... That is all we did. We prayed, human beings together, praying to Allah, the God of equality and love, and our prayer was led by a woman, who is [also] a human being. A human being and not [the embodiment of] shameful sexuality... We did this as part of  the Inclusive Mosque Initiative. This initiative has started to spread because it is human in its essence. Because all we demand is to pray in the mosque before Allah, alongside the men. All we demand is for woman to find her place in the mosque, in the same place where the man prays.

"In the 1970s we [Muslims] used to do this in Malaysia, Mali and Switzerland. We used to pray together. But the wave of religious extremism that reached us from the heart of the [Saudi]  Al-Najd region wiped out our religious practices and the role music played in them. This is extremism that tells us that a woman is not a human being, but is [the embodiment of] shameful sexuality, merchandise [to be used] for pleasure, and who may be married off at the age of nine. This is extremism that tells us that music, our cultural heritage, the oud and its spirituality, are evil things and part of devil-worship. This is extremism that tells us to hate, exclude [the other] and oppose pluralism in faith. This is an extremism that has turned the archaic approach of religious scholars into an idol that we worship instead of Allah. The religious scholars' approach has become an idol, but I am not an idolater. The religious scholars' approach has become an idol, but I worship Allah...

"We do not want to be excluded [from Islam]. We respect all paths leading to Allah and respect the mosques that exist in our societies. All we ask of you is to accept the fact that we too have a right [to a place] in the mosque...

"What have we done that you exclude us from the fold of Allah's religion? We prayed to Allah the Almighty and kneeled before Him... That is all we did."[4]



[1], February 13, 2016.

[3], May 30, 2016.

[4], June 2, 2016.

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