First woman to lead friday prayers in UK

A Canadian author will become the first Muslim-born woman to lead a mixed-gender British congregation through Friday prayers tomorrow in a highly controversial move that will attempt to spark a debate about the role of female leadership within Islam.

Raheel Raza, a rights activist and Toronto-based author, has been asked to lead prayers and deliver the khutbah at a small prayer session in Oxford. She has been invited by Dr Taj Hargey, a self-described imam who preaches an ultra-liberal interpretation of Islam which includes, among other things, that men and women should be allowed to pray together and that female imams should lead mixed congregations in prayer.

Raza, 60, is part of a small but growing group of Muslim feminists who have tried to challenge the mindset that has traditionally excluded women from leadership roles within the mosque. They argue that nowhere in the Koran are female imams expressly forbidden. Instead scholars rely on the hadiths (the words and sayings of the Prophet Mohamed) to exclude women — although Muslim feminists and some progressive scholars argue that even these are not clear enough to say with confidence that women are altogether banned.

Imam bridges a wedding divide

Muslim women and their Christian fiancés from across Europe are travelling to Oxford to get married because imams in their own countries refuse to perform the ceremonies. Dr Taj Hargey, chairman of the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford, said he had performed about 36 marriages in the past two years between Muslim women and non-Muslim men. More imams are happy to marry Muslim men to non-Muslim women. Couples from Spain, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, France and Norway have all come to Dr Hargey after failing to find someone locally prepared to carry out the service. Most had spent months looking for an imam, and many found Dr Hargey after contacting American Muslim leaders via the Internet. Dr Hargey, who believes he is the only imam in the UK who openly performs the mixed marriages, said: “We do it because there is no prohibition in the Koran. “Islam allows Muslim men to marry non-Muslim women and such marriages are common, but I am one of the only people who will do it the other way round.” He said couples had to sign up to five non-negotiable conditions protecting the woman’s faith, and agree to counselling before he would perform marriages. Muslim Sana Majeed McMillion, 27, and Christian-born Andrew McMillion, 32, were married by Dr Hargey last night in Abingdon — a 1,500 mile round-trip from their home in Oslo. Mr McMillion, an account manager for an IT company, said: “Generally speaking it seems to be totally accepted for men to marry non-Muslims, but not women. Fran Bardsley reports.