Full disclosure: In this video, he does not say what his personal opinion is regarding this issue. However, he does finally admit that on every issue, there were multiple opinions. Specifically, on the issue of women leading men in prayer, al-Tabari held that women can lead men in prayer if they are more qualified. In addition, Ibn Taymiyya also held that if a woman was literate while the men in the congregation were not, she could lead them in prayer. This also confirms what Khaled Abou El Fadl has said the tradition states all along, that if women are more knowledgeable than men, then yes, they can (and should) lead men in prayer.
The most significant point that he makes, in my humble opinion, is what I’ve been waiting years for a mainstream Muslim scholar to say: that there were multiple opinions on every issue.
“I would argue that the ‘islamic tradition’ has within itself all of the needs to renovate ‘the house’ but its going to take an immense amount of intellectual energy, it’s going to take very very highly qualified people, which necessitates institutions, that can train and produce the types of people that are needed to engage in this activity.”
This is pretty huge, considering some of Hamza Yusuf’s previous statements. A few years ago, he was adamantly against the idea of women leading prayer. A few years before that he was even more conservative. Who knows, maybe he’ll turn out to be a progressive in another few years time. (I kid, I kid…).
Update: I’ve been thinking about this all day, and it reminds me of a discussion I had with @AzamHussain. When mainstream scholars hold back information that they know is correct but choose to withhold it they knowingly mislead people and disrespect their congregations. The most pertinent example is the subject of this post. When Dr. Wadud was getting (much more than) harassed for leading prayer in NYC, Hamza Yusuf didn’t say a darn thing. Now, years later, he finally admits that, yes, there was debate on the issue and some scholars say it’s just fine for a woman to lead men in prayer. Where was he back then? While I appreciate his and other’s contributions to the American Muslim community, this tendency among ‘mainstream scholars’ to err on the conservative side while withholding the full story still rubs me the wrong way.
This is just one reason why I choose to read the Qur’an in solitude, and not through the lens of the ‘scholars,’ whoever they may be.
Now for a personal note: A big thank you to Dr. Amina Wadud for pushing this issue in our time. I’m afraid the discussions surrounding women’s spaces in mosques (let alone, women leading prayer) would not have happened had it not been for her. May God bless you a thousand blessings, and thank you for being an inspiration to me when we first met in 1999 when I was 16– at the Islamic Hinterland conference in Toronto.
Which reminds me to thank Rahat Kurd and everyone else who made the Islamic Hinterland conference possible. In other words, BIG HUGS.
You can watch the entire discussion here. Here is a transcript of the video clip above plus what he said afterward, to give you some more context:
Now, in terms of what is legitimate renovation* or ‘tajdeed’, I would argue that the Islamic tradition is a vast tradition. The Islamic tradition is largely un-read. Even people now that are studying in ‘madrasahs’, studying at Shar’ia colleges do not go deeply into this tradition. This is simply a fact. One of the things – I’ll give you one example. When I wrote a paper on female prayer, because this was an issue a few years ago, years ago when I was a student in Mauritania, I remembered in a book that Ibn Ayman from the Malaki madhab considered female prayers was permissible, and I remember as a twenty-one year old student underlining that; and I actually went back to the book and found my underlining of that statement. When I studied the prayer issue, I was so stuck by the fact that not only was it debated early on, but there were multiple opinions. Imam Tabari considered it permissible for women to lead the prayer if they were more qualified than men – to lead men in prayer. Ibn Taymiyah himself permitted women to lead men in prayer if they were illiterate and she was literate. He just said that she should lead from the back because she might distract the men if she was leading from the front. Ibn Taymiyeh! Permitting a woman to lead men in prayer!
This is the tradition, it’s all there. People have no idea how many of these issues were already examined and discussed, and erudition and energy went into this so if you look, I would argue* that the Islamic tradition has within itself all of the needs to renovate the house, but it’s going to take an immense amount of intellectual energy, it’s going to take very highly qualified people which necessitates institutions that can train and produce the types of people that are needed to engage in this activity.
‘Usul ul –fiqh’, which is one of the great – it is essence the philosophy of legislation in the Islamic tradition – much of the Qur’an and the hadith is in fact closer to what we would call ‘constitutional Law’ in the west. It’s not Statute Law. The Prophet, peace be upon him, gives far more constitutional expressions in legal injunctions than he ever gives cut and dry statute law – ‘do this, don’t do that.’ He leaves things open. There’s an immense amount of ambiguity in the hadiths; this was known early on. There are very few verses of the Qur’an and hadith that are considered as what is known as ‘qat’iatil dilala’, which is where the understanding of the expression is absolute; that we know exactly what it means. It often holds two, three, four, five, six meanings and you get all these multiple interpretations.
The other thing that is so extra-ordinary about our early scholars is that they were very well aware of what we would call ‘fallibalism’ – that they were not dictating ‘God’s Law’ in their jurisprudence. They were dictating the ‘mujtahid’ or the individual’s understanding of God’s Law. In fact even Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya in I’laam ul Muwaqqi’een has a chapter entitled ”The Prohibition of Calling a Fatwa ‘The Ruling of God “. The Prohibition of Calling a Fatwa the Ruling of God! The ‘fatwa’ is a personal opinion of a ‘mujtahid’ in attempting to understand the intention of a text.
Moreover, the fatwa was known and understood to be specific in many cases to time and place. This is another aspect of fatwa’s that are rarely understood even amongst people that are trained in classical Islamic education. The Hanafi* school believes that the place actually affects the ruling, even though the other schools do not in the Sunni tradition. So if you’re in England, there are certain rulings that would be permissible here that might not be permissible in another place. Other scholars argue ‘no’, but these are the differences of opinion and nuances – this is another aspect – the Muslims have always recognised diversity and differences of opinion, but we have what are called ‘thawabit’ and ‘mutaghayyirat’’ in our Islamic tradition. The ‘thawabit’ are things that do not change: they cannot be reformed. One of them is our basic understanding of God, our basic understanding of Prophecy, our basic understanding of eschatology, of what happens after life; these things are fixed and eternal, they do not change with time and place. God is all powerful, omniscient. He speaks and he has no gender even if we use gender language to express the divine by the limitations of language, but Muslim theologians were always clear that there was no gender to God – God is neither male nor female. Transcendent.