Even as Amina Wadud was preparing to lead an Islamic prayer service, her plans drew sharp criticism from Muslim religious leaders in the Middle East.

Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (search), was scheduled to lead a two-hour service Friday at Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (search) in Manhattan.

The event was meant to draw attention to the "second-class status" of women in Muslim spiritual life and Muslim life in general, said Asra Q. Nomani (search), an author and former Wall Street Journal reporter who is lead organizer of the prayer.

"We are taking actions that no one else would have dared to think about before," she told The New York Times for Friday editions. "Nobody cared that we didn't have a place in the faith."

Muslim leaders denounced the plans.

The sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque (search), one of the top world's Islamic institutions, said Islam permits women to lead other women in prayer but not a congregation with men in it.

"A woman's body is private," Sheik Sayed Tantawi wrote in a column in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram in which he was asked about Wadud's planned prayer. "When she leads men in prayer, in this case, it's not proper for them to look at the woman whose body is in front of them. Even if they see it in their daily life, it shouldn't be in situations of worship, where the main point is humility and modesty."

Muslim leaders in New York were also wary of the plan.

"My concern is a backlash," Aisha al-Adawiya, head of New York-based Women in Islam (search), told the Times. "This kind of change has to come from within the community. It's being driven from outside."

Some critics have accused Nomani of using the event to publicize a book she has written about women and Islam.

Three New York mosques refused to host the service, Nomani said. It was moved to Synod House after a site that had earlier been selected for the service, an art gallery in SoHo, received a bomb threat.