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.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech before the Senate, in which he announced the ban of the burka in France, has stirred some emotion and discussion in Britain, where such law is far from being thought of. In her article Cassandra Jardine compares the two countries, pointing to the right to individual and religious expression in Britain.
Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News, believes the way forward is through tolerance and understanding, not legislation — and is glad he lives in Britain for that reason. “Britain is the best country in Europe for Muslims. We complain, but we are freer here, and we have more dialogue with government. In France, Muslim organisations are not representative; here they are independent. In France, Muslims live in ghettos and have double the unemployment rate of the rest of the population. Many French women come to university in the UK because they want to study and wear the headscarf which in France they cannot.”
The article also quotes those who would welcome the burka-ban, not least some members of the Muslim community. “The French president should be applauded for initiating this debate,” Dr Taj Hargey of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford said. Dr Hargey describes the growing belief that Muslim women should cover their head, face and hands as “doctrinaire brain-washing”. Dr Usama Hasan, a reformist London Imam, also has “some sympathy” with Sarkozy: he too does not think it is necessary for women to wear the burka.
A prominent Oxford Muslim has challenged controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders to meet him for a public debate over Islam. Dr. Taj Hargey, Imam of the Summertown Islamic congregation, and leader of the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford, has invited Wilders — barred from Britain in February because of his anti-Muslim views — to meet at a neutral venue, saying his ideas need to be challenged publicly rather than boycotted.
Dr. Hargey has himself courted controversy in the Muslim community. He invited a woman to lead a congregation of men and women for Friday prayers, and offered financial support to a Buckinghamshire school after it refused to allow a female Muslim pupil to wear a full-face veil. Dr. Hargey said he was totally opposed to Wilders’ views on Islam, but insisted that made it all the more important for them to be questioned in a public way. “By banning him, Wilders became a bigger hero to the anti-Muslim brigade”, he said.
Dr. Hargey added: “If he does not accept the invitation, his criticism of Islam has no foundation.” Meanwhile Dr. Hargey received a call from Wilders’s office saying they had received the invitation for a public discourse but that the MP was currently travelling and would not be able to respond until next week.
Dr. Taj Hargey, “a clean-shaven imam from Oxford”, who describes himself as a “thorn in the side of the Muslim hierarchy”, has won a libel claim against a conservative Muslim newspaper. The Muslim News published an article that claimed he belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect which many in his faith believe is heretical.
Dr. Hargey has made many enemies because of his liberal brand of Islam, which he preaches from a small assembly hall. Unlike most British imams who insist on segregation during Friday prayers, Dr. Hargey allows men and women to pray in the same room. He believes Muslims should not feel compelled to grow beards or wear a veil and last November his mosque became the first in Britain to allow female Islamic scholar Amina Wadud to lead Friday prayers.
After winning the lawsuit Dr. Hargey said: “This is a watershed moment in the struggle between liberal Muslims in the UK and the extremist views … [of] a foreign-educated clergy. Progressives like me are described as heretics in order to ruin our credibility. It’s a form of Muslim McCarthyism that is used to root out anyone who dares question these unenlightened, tribal and foreign forms of Islam.”
It was, said the organisers, as historic and radical an act as Emmeline Pankhurst chaining herself to railings outside the Houses of Parliament. But for others a Muslim service led by a woman was sacrilege. Amina Wadud, an American academic, yesterday became the first woman to lead British Muslims in mixed congregational prayers and deliver the Friday sermon. Wadud, who converted to Islam more than 30 years ago, addressed a group of about 15 men and women at the Oxfordshire Masonic Centre. It marked the start of a two-day conference on Islam and feminism but, more significantly, broke 1,500 years of tradition regarding a woman’s place in the mosque. Wadud, who received death threats and worldwide condemnation following a similar service in New York three years ago, said: “There is nothing in the Qur’an or the hadith that forbids me from doing this. The prophet did it himself during his time, when he assigned a woman to lead a mixed prayer. “This is not a movement, it is just a reality. It is part of the living tradition of Islam, Islam has not died. It is important British women take up the mantle and fulfil the possibility of prayer leadership.” The Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, which organised the event, anticipated demonstrations and these fears secured a police presence. Wadud, 56, a professor from Virginia Commonwealth University, stressed the importance of prayer. Seeing her flock were outnumbered by the media and sitting away from her, she told them: “I’m not going to bite you, I promise. It would make me feel better if you were closer to each other.” They duly shuffled together. Rawand Osman, 25, who travelled from Birmingham, said: “It’s good for the psychology of Muslim men to start seeing women in these positions.” Taj Hargey, chair of Meco, claimed conservative imams in Oxford threatened to disown Muslims attending the prayers. Riazat Butt and Niki Nixon reports.
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