By Abu Amina Elias for FaithinAllah.org
Is it permissible for women to lead men in prayer?
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
The vast majority of scholars maintain that it is not permissible for women to lead men in prayer for two important reasons: first, acts of worship in Islam must be derived from revelation as prescribed by the Prophet, and second, men and women are separated in prayer in order to preserve the integrity of the ritual from immodesty.
The structure of prayer was prescribed by the Messenger of Allah. He ordered men to pray in the front rows and women to pray in the back rows.
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
خَيْرُ صُفُوفِ الرِّجَالِ أَوَّلُهَا وَشَرُّهَا آخِرُهَا وَخَيْرُ صُفُوفِ النِّسَاءِ آخِرُهَا وَشَرُّهَا
The best rows for men are the front rows and the worst are the back rows. The best rows for women are the back rows and the worst are the front rows.
Source: Sahih Muslim 440, Grade: Sahih
The basic principle is that acts of worship must be prescribed by Allah and His Messenger, because only Allah knows how He would like to be worshiped. Any change in the basic acts of worship would imply that human beings have authority to prescribe acts of worship for themselves, which contradicts the essence of Islam as submission to Allah. Such a change would be considered a forbidden religious innovation (bidah).
Furthermore, the purpose of separating men and women in prayer is to prevent feelings of attraction from disrupting the prayer. It is not because women are “inferior” to men.
وَإِنَّمَا فَضَّلَ آخِرَ صُفُوفِ النِّسَاءِ الْحَاضِرَاتِ مَعَ الرِّجَالِ لِبُعْدِهِنَّ مِنْ مُخَالَطَةِ الرِّجَالِ وَرُؤْيَتِهِمْ وَتَعَلُّقِ الْقَلْبِ بِهِمْ عِنْدَ رُؤْيَةِ حَرَكَاتِهِمْ وَسَمَاعِ كَلَامِهِمْ وَنَحْوِ ذَلِكَ
The virtue is for women to pray in the back rows while praying with men because they will be further away from mixing with them, seeing them, and being attracted to their movements and words and so on.
Source: Sharh Sahih Muslim
Men and women should be focused on the remembrance of Allah while performing prayer. If the sexes were mixed during the prayer, then this would distract the worshipers as they would begin to focus on those to whom they are attracted. Likewise, a woman does not deliver the Friday sermon so that the men may focus on the content of the sermon rather than attraction to a woman.
Nevertheless, it is permissible for a woman to lead other women in prayer.
The movement that is agitating for women to lead men in prayer has not understood the basic principles of Islamic worship or the reason for the prayer’s structure. Their concern is that women should be “liberated” from male domination but changing the structure of the prayer would only be a superficial symbol and it would not ensure the dignity of women. Rather, demanding that Muslims change the structure of the prayer disrespects the integrity of Islamic rituals and only distracts us from real issues of concern to women.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.