This article was written pre-COVID but is especially relevant this Ramadan
I still remember the first time I heard of a women-only Tarawih congregation. I was about 10 years old and my father had told me that Maulana Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (1914–1999), a prominent Indian Hanafi scholar of the past century, had written a book about his mother (d. 1968) who was a hafidha (memorizer of the Quran) and had mentioned she would lead women in Tarawih. Shaykh Nadwi had written:
“What a beautiful era it was when they (his mother and aunts) all would recite one juz each in Tarawih. They would follow the fatwa of some scholars and have their own congregation in which there would be a woman Imam and women followers. Their Tarawih congregation would go on from after Isha till almost Suhoor time. All of them would recite Qur’an very beautifully with impeccable pronunciation. If it’s not disrespectful I would say that they recited better and more accurately than many of today’s scholars. Their heartfelt passion and natural melody would add even more beauty to this. I recall one time I stood for a long time watching my mother recite as she was leading Tarawih. It felt as if rain was descending from the heavens. I still have not forgotten the beauty of that moment.” (Nadwi, 1974).
I remember finding this fascinating. The idea of women, women of recent history — and for me as a desi, desi women — memorizing the Qur’an, and leading each other in long prayers was something I had never heard of or even thought was a thing. This was before I had heard of the concept of girls memorizing the Qur’an, before sisters’ qiyams gained relative popularity in American Muslim practice. The only thing I knew about women-led congregations then was that it was considered disliked according to the Hanafis, but permissible according to others.
Years later, after I memorized the Qur’an and I was studying in madrasa at Pakistan, I learned the concept of women-only Taraweeh prayers was still something alive and practiced. Many of the hafidhas there would also pray together in Tarawih in congregations of two or three. The position of our (Hanafi) madrasa regarding this was that this was permissible if it was done with the intention of reviewing the Quran.
In the past years, there has been a rise in North America in the popularity of sisters’ Tarawih and qiyams. As mentioned, this is not something new in our tradition. It has been done throughout the centuries, and hadiths indicate it was done even in the time of the Prophet and the Sahabah. It is something encouraged in some schools of fiqh. However since this is something this is against the classical Hanafi opinion, many people have questions about the validity or the advisability of such for Hanafis. As a woman who follows Hanafi fiqh, should I pray in a congregation of women? Is it okay for me to lead a congregation? What is the benefit of a sisters’ qiyam anyway? We’ll explore these questions in this article.
Hanafi Arguments Regarding Women-Only Congregations
There are many narrations that mention some Sahabiyyat, notably Aisha , Umm Salamah , and Umm Waraqah led women in prayer, both obligatory prayers and voluntary.
Some of the narrations are below:
Layla bint Malik and Abdur Rahman bin Khallad Al-Ansari narrate on the authority of Umm Waraqah that after the Prophet fought in Battle of Badr she said, I said, “Oh Prophet of Allah ! Allow me to join you in battle so that I can nurse the sick, and perhaps Allah will grant me martyrdom.” The Prophet said, “Remain at home for Allah will grant you martyrdom.” So she used to be called the martyr. She had recited the Qur’an so she asked the Prophet if she could appoint a muadhin for her house, so he gave her permission…” In another narration it mentions, “The Prophet commanded her to lead the members of her household in prayer.” (Abu Dawud)
Ibrahim narrates on Aisha that she used to lead women in prayer in the month of Ramadan, and she used to stand in the middle of the row. (Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan, Kitabul Athar)
Raita Al-Hanafiyya narrates that Aisha led them in prayer and stood in the middle of them in a fard prayer. (Musannaf Abdur Razzaq).
Hujaira narrates that Umm Salama led them in Asr prayer and stood in middle. (Musannaf Abdur Razzaq).
Because of these and other similar narrations, the Shafii’s and Hanbalis consider it permissible for women to pray in congregation, even preferred when they are already gathered together or when done with the intention of education. The Malikis do not allow it at all. The Hanafi position on this is a little more nuanced, it is considered valid, but disliked prohibitively (makruh tahreemi). I will use the term disliked in the rest fo the article.
Before we look at the Hanafi argument, it’s important to keep in mind that while it is true that most classical Hanafi scholars were of the opinion that women only congregations (apart from Salatul Janazah which is permissible without dislike) were prohibitively disliked, it is also true that all Hanafi scholars were of the opinion that it is still valid. As Allama Kasani writes in Badai’us Sanai’ when discussing the conditions of being an Imam, “and likewise a woman also is fit for being an Imam, such that if she were to lead a congregation of women-only it would be valid … except that it is disliked according to us and preferred according to Shafi’i.”
Therefore all Hanafi fiqh books also explain the method of how a women-only congregation will be carried out, namely where the imam will stand.
The classical Hanafi argument against women-only congregations is as follows: Acts of worship are ta’abbudi, based on ritual, not reason, and therefore we stick to the manner it was done in the time of the Prophet and the generation of the Sahabah. Although there are narrations that mention some Sahabiyyat led women in prayer, this was the exception not the norm. If women only congregations were praiseworthy, there would be more recorded instances. Since this was not the regular practice of the Sahabiyyat, it should be avoided. The Hanafi response to the narrations of the Sahabiyyat leading prayer is that it is abrogated or that it was specific to the earlier days of Islam.
There is also a technical argument given by the Hanafis. It is argued that a women-only congregation will always consist of one of two potentially disliked actions of prayer. In women-only congregations, the imam stands in the middle of the first row, not ahead, because this is how it is narrated that Aisha and Umm Salamah stood when they led. Hanafis argue that in congregational prayers, it is sunnah for the Imam to stand in front of the congregation; standing in the same row as followers is disliked. Having the imam stand in the middle prevents this prayer from being done in the ideal way. Therefore it is disliked.
However, if the imam stands ahead, this is also disliked because in standing in front of everyone there is more exposure whereas the sunnah teachings regarding a women’s prayer is that it should be done in a way and place that is as concealing as possible.
Because of this, the Hanafis argue either way it is done, one of two possible disliked actions will be carried out, and therefore the prayer itself is disliked. This position is present in most classical books of Hanafi fiqh and fatawa from the primers like Kanz ud-Daqaiq and Hidaya to the fatawa compilations like Raddul Muhtar and Hindiyya and is usually considered sufficient for explaining the Hanafi view on this issue.
But while this is the majority Hanafi position on this issue, there has been some discussion about issues with these arguments even among the classical Hanafi scholars.
Allama Ibn al-Hummam (d. 1273), the famous commentator of Hidaya discusses this matter in his commentary, Fathul Qadir, where he quotes many hadiths which show that certain Sahabiyyat would lead the prayer. He then mentions that to say these hadiths are abrogated or restricted to the earlier days is difficult to establish because there is no proof for that; all of the hadiths about women leading prayer are from the later Madinan period. One narration, for instance, mentions that Aisha used to lead women in Ramadan. Tarawih prayer in congregation was something the Sahaba established regularly only after the death of the Prophet . If she used to lead Taraweeh after the death of the Prophet , it couldn’t have possibly been abrogated. He then mentions some responses to this but says it still doesn’t establish that this has been abrogated. The only hadith that might indicate that this is abrogated, he says, is the hadith in Abu Dawud and similar hadiths stating that the prayer of a women in the most concealed portion of her house is the best. But this hadith can only be used to establish that women-only congregations are no longer recommended (mustahabb), which is different from being deemed disliked prohibitively. (Fathul Qadir, volume 1, page 307).
Allama Abdul Hayy Lakhnawi, a Hanafi researcher and scholar from the 1800s, in his detailed discussion of this issue in “Tuhfatun Nubala fi Jama’atin Nisa” (Gift for the Noble Regarding the Congregation of Women), compiles many arguments for and against this topic. After arguing that there is no proof to establish these hadiths have been abrogated, he lists many reasons why the aforementioned technical arguments of the Hanafis against women congregations are not strong. For instance, he argues that saying it is disliked for an imam to stand in the middle of the row is not correct because Aisha would not have done so if it was disliked. It is possible that it is disliked for men, not for women. But even for men, it is not disliked in some instances, like when a man is leading only one or two other men in prayer. Also, if it is disliked, then why have we made an exception for Salatul Janazah and have said it is not disliked there? So to say that it is disliked completely is inconsistent.
He also argues that saying there is more exposure if a woman stands ahead of everyone else is not valid either for many reasons. If a woman is standing ahead of everyone else, there are two possibilities: either her satr for prayer (the portion of the body that is obligatory to cover) is uncovered or it is covered. If it is uncovered the Salah itself is invalid, so it doesn’t matter whether it was in congregation or not. And if it is covered, it does not affect the validity of Salah because there isn’t anything disliked about praying fully covered in front of others. So the real reason why a woman stands in the middle is that Aisha did so, not necessarily because she must conceal herself to that level when praying.
These are just some of the many arguments he presents. After mentioning all the arguments, he goes on to say, “The opinion that this is prohibitively disliked is not correct. Rather, following the truth wherever it is found is more correct.” He says that since the hadiths indicate that it is permissible, and there is no clear proof that this has been abrogated, nor can we say that it was done only in the beginning of Islam, and the technical reasons behind the apparent prohibition mentioned have their faults, the most we can say in this regard is that it is khilaful awla (not recommended, just slightly lesser than permissible). He concludes by saying, “What becomes obvious from this whole discussion is that saying it is disliked, especially saying that it is prohibitively disliked, is something the scholars derived based on their understanding and assumptions, not something that they learned from the Imams. Or perhaps they had a reason for this opinion that we haven’t been able to come across. Whatever we have come across, we have explained.”
In summary, although the classical, dominant Hanafi opinion was that it is prohibitively disliked, there were some Hanafi scholars who believed otherwise, and had strong arguments to establish this. To argue for the permissibility of women-only congregations is not something that was only done recently, nor is it something that is baseless. Of course the arguments of one or two scholars don’t automatically override all other fatwas but at the very least this indicates there is room even in Hanafi fiqh to allow for this and perhaps is something that should be reconsidered.
Potential Benefits of Women Congregations
What is the point of women-only congregations? What is the benefit especially if it is something that many scholars of the past discouraged? Isn’t it better to avoid what is doubtful?
We must remember that in issues like this where there is valid difference of opinion, and where there are proofs that justify both sides of the argument, the question is not whether the issue at hand is correct or incorrect. Rather, the question is determining which practice is closer to the Sunnah of the Prophet , which practice will have the most benefits. When jurists say something is preferred or disliked here what they mean is that through their knowledge and understanding of the sources of Islamic law they believe this is the best application of the teachings of the Prophet and the best way to fulfill the various purposes of the Shariah, not that practicing the other way is an act of misguidance or clear error. For this reason, we need to look at the potential benefits and the needs and context of people to better understand whether and when this practice should be encouraged or avoided.
A few clarifications before we continue: In Hanafi fiqh, for obligatory prayers, it is better to have one large congregation than multiple small ones. To have a regular congregation outside the masjid is discouraged. This is another reason why women-only congregations were not encouraged, because they are not meant for everyone. So it is important to keep in mind that if we are mentioning benefits of obligatory prayers in women-only congregations, this is meant occasionally and in the context of when women are not regularly attending the masjid for the five daily salahs (as is arguably usually the case). It does not mean that women who already regularly attend the congregation in the masjid leave the congregation in the masjid and start a congregation with each other or that women who usually pray individually specifically go out to join a congregation for fard (mandatory) prayers.
Another issue to clarify is the ruling regarding women reciting out loud in prayers, be it in individual or congregational prayers. Hanafi scholars have generally said this is disliked, whereas the Hanbalis encourage it so as long as no non-mahram men can hear. The Shafiis also say it is permissible with that condition. The Malikis consider it disliked regardless. However, this is more to do with the adab of prayer, and how ideally the prayer of a woman should be done in a concealing manner, not something that affects the validity of prayer, based on the preferred opinion that the voice is not awrah. So there is room for following another opinion here as we see in Shaykh Nadwi’s mother’s example.
With that said, the first thing to discuss is the general benefits of congregational prayers – be it at the masjid with everyone else, or women only. Praying the five daily prayers in congregation is one of the most important parts of the concept of iqamatus salah, establishing salah, which has been commanded repeatedly in the Qur’an. To establish salah openly together can serve as a powerful way of aiding each other in good deeds and taqwa, and building bonds and unity. The Prophet would put great effort into lining up the companions in prayer and stressed that gathering together and standing in a straight line increases unity and removes hatred. While women are excused from praying in congregation unlike men, women can still benefit from many of the blessings of congregational prayer every now and then, be it the unity that it can build or the way it can help make salah something visibly central in their lives.
Another important role of congregational prayer is how it teaches how to perform and establish salah. It is through the congregational prayer that the Prophet taught the Sahabah, both male and female, how to pray and perfect their prayers, how to center their life around prayer. And even the Prophet himself learned to pray from Jibril who led him in salah. Praying in congregation is most effective way to learn how to pray and to build a habit of prayer, something which so many people, both male and female, are in need of.
One may argue that generations of women have learned how to pray without attending congregations. Even if it may be possible to learn salah without participating in a congregational prayer, it’s not always the case. How many of these women really had the opportunity to learn how to pray correctly and develop a habit of salah? And how many of them learned the adab of praying in a congregation or in the masjid? We need to consider whether not allowing or encouraging women to pray in congregation, either at the masjid or together, may be affecting the establishment of salah in their lives especially for those who live in places where salah isn’t publicly established.
So although regular congregations of the five daily prayers may not be necessary for all women, they can be beneficial for those who are learning to pray, like children and younger people. For instance, if a group of girls are together, and prayer time comes in, having them all pray together in congregation can be much easier and more beneficial than telling them all to pray individually as is often done among Hanafis.
Apart from these general benefits there are also benefits especially applicable to women only Tarawih congregations.
The most commonly cited benefit of women-only Tarawih congregations is that it gives hafidhas a chance to properly review and practice their Qur’an. The best way to review the Qur’an and ensure that it remains in the memory year after year is to not only review it regularly but to recite it at least once a year in Taraweeh. Of course, this can also be done individually, but it may be difficult. The traditional Hanafi fatwa here says that if a hafidha is not confident enough in her hifdh to pray by herself, she should recite out loud and have someone not praying listen to her recitation and note her mistakes so she can be informed after prayer (not in middle, because that also invalidates prayer according to Hanafis). The problem, however, is that this is not really practical. Not every hafidha can find someone willing to sacrifice 1-2 hours in Ramadan, to just sit and listen. Allowing hafidhas to lead each other makes easier to practice. And even if a hafidha is only leading non-hafidhas in prayer, it still allows her to practice and keeps her motivated to review.
Another benefit is that it allows women whom Allah has gifted the knowledge and recitation of the Qur’an an opportunity to share, benefit, and teach others, and through this, grow in their own knowledge. It is mentioned in the hadiths about Umm Waraqah that she had recited the Qur’an, i.e. learned the Qur’an, which is why the Prophet appointed her to lead at her house. Part of the responsibility of those who have knowledge of the Qur’an is sharing it and using it to help others.
But the biggest benefit of a women-only congregation in my opinion is that it can serve as an inspiration to women and girls to increase their love for the Qur’an and create in them a stronger desire to learn it. Many huffadh mention that their original inspiration to memorize the Qur’an came from witnessing a Tarawih prayer as a child. This is not the same for girls though. Tarawih at the masjid may increase them in their love for the Qur’an, but if this is all they see, it can also leave them feeling that memorizing the Qur’an is something only for boys because they will not get to be at the position of that imam. The issue here is not about memorizing for the purpose of leading or fame, the issue is about having a relevant positive role model that inspires you to do good as you can aspire to be like.
Hearing a fellow female recite the Qur’an, inside or outside of prayer, is something unfortunately many women do not usually have the opportunity to do so. Listening to the recitation of the Quran from others is a powerful form of worship and gaining closeness to Allah. For the female listener, there’s a special power in a female voice. Those who have experienced it know how it allows the beauty of the Qur’an be reflected in a different manner and how it’s a reminder the Qur’an was also sent down to females to recite, learn, and protect. This may seem obvious, but the reality is that since so many girls have grown up without hearing a woman recite the Qur’an, they often feel it is not something for them to do.
Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi shared the intimate experience of his mother’s Tarawih. He could have chosen not to mention it, to keep it between her and Allah. But he shared it. Decades later and hundreds of miles away, just hearing about her being devoted to the Qur’an at that level and leading women in Tarawih inspired me as a child to memorize the Qur’an. And it wasn’t just me, I know a whole generation of hafidhas from the subcontinent and perhaps across the world, cite her as their inspiration for memorizing.
If this is the power of hearing about one woman’s Tarawih congregation imagine how much more powerful and inspirational it would be for a young girl to witness a women’s congregation, to witness hafidhas reciting the Quran in a beautiful manner and leading their sisters in Tarawih. Imagine the potential effect attending women-only congregations can have on a generation of girls and how much closer it can bring them to the Qur’an.
Seeing women-only congregations being held across the country in Ramadan is a sign that women are devoted to the Quran, that they have learned it well enough to lead, that they are devoted to worship, that they are gathering together for a good purpose. Yes, it is true there is a difference of opinion here and it is fine to disagree. But in issues where there is a valid difference of opinion, there is no reason to speak against someone who follows the other also valid opinion and there is definitely no room for mocking those who choose to practice this sunnah of the Sahabiyyat.
Source: Muslim Matters