Woman Draws Protest Leading Muslim Prayer in Britain

A handful of protesters demonstrated Friday against a woman leading a Muslim prayer service for both men and women — the first time such a service has been held publicly in Britain.

U.S. scholar Amina Wadud led about a dozen male and female worshippers in prayer at a conference hall in Oxford. The service took place before a university conference on women and Islam.

Critics said Wadud should not have led the service, because she is a woman and because men and women attended. Muslim practice holds only men should lead services in which men are present.

"We believe women are equal in Islam," countered Taj Hargey, the chairman of Muslim Education Center of Oxford. The group sponsored the event.

Wadud, an author and scholar at a seminary in Berkeley, California, received death threats for conducting a similar service at a church in New York three years ago.

"The purpose of prayer is a relationship with God, and it has been politicized by people who see it as a power dynamic," Wadud said after the service. "It is important that British women take up the mantle, and feel able to take the lead in prayer."

Muslim leaders in Oxford urged people not to demonstrate publicly Friday, saying that doing so would give Wadud publicity. Though only a few protesters turned out, several people voiced their opposition to Wadud's actions in interviews.

"When prayers are offered by Muslims and other religious people, we believe they should be offered in the divine way he (God) has prescribed," said Mokhtar Badri, vice president of the Muslim Association of Great Britain. "As far as we know — in all our scripts, in all our mosques, in all the different continents where Muslims exist, women do not lead the prayer."

He pointed out that other religions, including Catholicism, also give men and women different roles.

Wadud has her defenders, including Hargey.

"There was a specific example during the life of the prophet himself where he let a woman lead a mixed-congregation prayer," Hargey said. "The lady was Umm Waraqah. She was also one of the first women who memorized the entire Quran. Certainly she was a woman who was learned, erudite in religion and a devoted follower. The Prophet Muhammad allowed her to lead the prayers in her neighborhood."