LONDON // Muslims in Britain were divided yesterday after a woman led Friday prayers before a mixed gender congregation for the first time in the United Kingdom. The Muslim establishment rounded on the 20 or so participants at the service - held at the start of a weekend conference on Islam and feminism at Wolfson College in Oxford - saying their prayers would not be valid.
The Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford (Meco), which organised the event, described the service as a "leap forward for theological destiny". The divide between the two sides is reflected in Britain's Muslim community, which numbers two million, where some of its younger members and more liberal elements are demanding a greater, more equal role for women and where traditionalists and older members resist any change.
Friday's service, conducted by Amina Wadud, an Islamic scholar from California, attracted a protest by a group of Muslim women outside the college, despite pleas from local leaders not to demonstrate for fear of giving the event added publicity. Nine women felt so strongly, however, that they staged a peaceful protest, waving placards reading: "True Muslims respect sharia law" and "Women leading the prayer is against Islamic law."
Maryam Ramzy, who works at a Muslim school in Oxford, said: "We are practising Muslim women and we believe women should not lead the prayer. This is the law - sharia law - and it should not be changed. It makes us feel uncomfortable. Muslims in Oxford feel strongly about this. They are upset." Muhammed Khan, an organiser at the two mosques in the city who visited the protest in a bid to get the demonstrators to ignore the service, added: "I think the people praying are wasting their time and I feel sorry for them because their prayer will not be valid."
Inside the college, Ms Wadud led the prayers and delivered an hour-long khutba on the importance of salat. Three years ago, she led a similar service in New York that led to death threats and had to be held in a church after mosques refused to allow her in. Ms Wadud insisted afterwards that there was "nothing in the Quran" that prohibited women from conducting mixed prayer services. "My own theological research into the essence of Islam indicates the necessity for us to be able to move away from the tradition that restricted women from the practice of leading prayer," she said.
"The purpose of prayer is a relationship with God and it has been politicised by people who see it as a power dynamic. It is important that British women take up the mantle and feel able to take the lead in prayer." Taj Hargey, chairman of Meco, added: "We believe that Islam is a gender-equal religion. There is a record that the Prophet Mohammed allowed a woman to lead a mixed-gender congregation, but this precedent has been ignored.
"That lady was Umm Waraqah. She was also one of the first women who memorised the entire Quran. Certainly, she was a woman who was learned, erudite in religion and a devoted follower. The Prophet Mohammed allowed her to lead the prayers in her neighbourhood." But the Muslim Association of Great Britain reacted angrily to the service. Mokhtar Badri, the association's vice president, said: "When prayers are offered by Muslims and other religious people, we believe they should be offered in the divine way that He has prescribed.
"As far as we know - in all our scriptures, in all our mosques, in all the different continents where Muslims exist - women do not lead the prayer." Mr Badri pointed out that other religions, such as Roman Catholics - who do not allow women to become priests - define different roles for men and women. "It has nothing to do with position of women in society. It is not to degrade them or because we don't think they are up to it," he said. "This is something divine, not human. We have to do it in the way it has been ordained by God."
Those who attended the service appeared to enjoy what they had experienced. Vakkas Tekin, 67, said he decided to go "because it was something new and it has never been done before and I wanted to see what she was going to say". His verdict: "I think she was very good. She did not say anything about the religion which was against Islam." Zahra Raja, 21, a student at Oxford, sat in on the service to listen to Ms Wadud's sermon but did not join in the prayers. "I was very impressed by her," she said. "It was very well researched. I didn't participate because I wasn't sure if it was the right thing for me to do."
The Muslim Council of Oxford maintained that it represented 98 per cent of Muslims in Oxford and that they were firmly opposed to women leading mixed prayers. email@example.com