Women and the Masjid: Avoiding Extremes

Khalid Baig


Does Islam require — or even permit —- a coed masjid?

Without using the term —for obvious reasons—- many people in the US are making suggestions that point in that direction. They begin by referring to real problems women face in some of the masajid where they are denied even minimal facilities to use the masjid but then take a “leap of faith” and go to the extreme position that men and women must be in the same physical space without any barriers and that both must have an equal share in administering the masjid. They call it the Prophetic example and the practice of this ummah over the centuries as a deviation from that Sunnah. They want to correct a historic wrong!

So let us take a careful and balanced look at the role of the masjid and that of our sisters in it according to Islamic teachings.

Does the Qur’an Require Masjid Attendance by Women?

The answer is no. Neither the Qur’an nor the Hadith make it a religious obligation for women to pray in a masjid. It is permitted, with conditions, as we shall see below. But it is never required.

Some people have tried to use the ayah from Surah al-Ahzab to imply a requirement. The ayah says:: “For the Muslim men and women,- for the believing men and women, for the devout men and women, for the truthful men and women, for the men and women who are patient and constant, for the men and women who humble themselves, for the men and women who give charity, for the men and women who fast, for the men and women who guard their chastity, and for the men and women who are exceedingly mindful of Allah—for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great rewards.” [Al-Ahzab 33: 35]

What this very important ayah tells us is that women and men are equal in being servants of Allah and being responsible for whatever obligations have been placed on them. Allah’s forgiveness and great rewards are open to both men and women as they become sincere believers and devout worshipers, and as they develop qualities of humbleness, chastity, charity, and taqwa. It does not say that their obligations are the same or they work in a coed world.

Some people used this alleged quote from the Qur’an: “They (collaborate) to promote all that is good and oppose all that is evil.” [Al-Tawbah 9:71] to make their case. The word “collaborate” has been inserted to suggest that the Qur’an is praising men and women collaborating with each other in a coed campaign. If that is the idea, that is a blatant lie. For the word is not there and it is not implied. The Qur’an is simply asking men and women to command good and forbid evil in their own spheres. Here, for comparison, are three translations:

YUSUFALI: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil. PICKTHAL: they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong. SHAKIR: they enjoin good and forbid evil.

None of them hints at the word “collaborate.”

The Qur’an on Mixed Gatherings

To understand the Qur’an’s view of mixed gatherings, we can turn to this verse: “O you who believe! Let not some men among you laugh at others: It may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): Nor let some women laugh at others: It may be that the (latter) are better than the (former)” [Al-Hujarat, 49:11]. Here men have been admonished against laughing at other men and women from laughing at other women. But there is no mention of cross gender possibilities. Why? Because in Islam there is no concept of a mixed gathering. So the question of men laughing at women or vice versa simply does not arise.

Ahadith on Women’s Prayers

Given below are some of the ahadith that address the issue of women’s prayers.

A) Um Salama, Radi-Allahu anha, narrates that the Messenger of Allah, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said: “The best masjid for women is the innermost part of their houses.” [Ahmad 6/297, Tabrani in Al-Kabeer, Ibn Khuzaima, Mustadrak Hakim 1/209].

B) Um Humayd, the wife of Abu Humayd As-Sa’di, Radi-Allahu anhuma, narrates that she came to the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam and said: “O Messenger of Allah, I love to pray with you. He said, “I know that you love to pray with me, but your prayer in your bayt [e.g. bedroom] is better than your prayer in your hujra [e.g. living room], and your prayer in your hujra is better than your prayer in your daar [e.g. courtyard], and your prayer in your daar is better than your prayer in your neighborhood masjid, and your prayer in your neighborhood masjid is better than your prayer in my masjid.” The narrator says: “So she ordered and a masjid was constructed for her in the farthest and darkest corner of her house, and she continued to pray there until she died.” [Ahmad 6/371, Ibn Khuzaima 3/95, Ibn Hibban 2214]

C) Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Radi-Allahu anhu, narrates that the Messenger of Allah, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said: “No woman prays a prayer more beloved to Allah, than that in the darkest part of her home.” [At-Tabrani in Al-Kabeer. Also Ibn Khuzaimah 3/96]

D) Abdullah Ibn Umar, Radi-Allahu anhu, narrates that the Messenger of Allah, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said: “The woman is worth hiding (‘awrat) and when she leaves her home, the Shaytaan raises his glance to her, and she is never closer to Allah than when she is in the innermost part of her home.” [Tabrani in Al-Awsat. For similar ahadith see Tirmidhi, Abwaab-ur-Ridaa’ 1173; Ibn Khuzaima 3/93; Ibn Hibban 5570]

E) Abdullah Ibn Umar, Radi-Allahu anhu, narrates that the Messenger of Allah, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said: “Do not prevent your women from (entering) the mosques, but their houses are better for them.” [Abu Dawud Kitab-us-Salat. Bab Ma Jaa’a fi Khuroojin-nisaa-i ilal Masjid]

F) Abdullah Ibn Umar, Radi-Allahu anhu, narrates that the Messenger of Allah, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said: “Do not prevent your women from (entering) the mosques of Allah.” [Sahih Muslim. Kitab-us-Salat, Babu Khuroojin Nisaai ilal masjid iza lam utarattab. #668]

While the advocates of the coed masjid claim that they are asserting the rights of women, they are in fact denying the right of a private space to both men and women.

Imam Nawawi’s Commentary on the Hadith prohibiting Stopping Women from Masjid

This last hadith has been used as a justification for an unmitigated and unconditional right of women to fully participate in the main hall of a masjid. But this is not how it has been understood by hadith scholars and Muslim jurists. In his commentary of Sahih Muslim, Imam Nawawi writes:

قَوْله صَلَّى اللَّه عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : ( لَا تَمْنَعُوا إِمَاء اللَّه مَسَاجِد اللَّه ) هَذَا وَشَبَهه مِنْ أَحَادِيث الْبَاب ظَاهِر فِي أَنَّهَا لَا تُمْنَع الْمَسْجِد لَكِنْ بِشُرُوطٍ ذَكَرَهَا الْعُلَمَاء مَأْخُوذَة مِنْ الْأَحَادِيث , وَهُوَ أَلَّا تَكُون مُتَطَيِّبَة , وَلَا مُتَزَيِّنَة , وَلَا ذَات خَلَاخِل يُسْمَع صَوْتهَا , وَلَا ثِيَاب فَاخِرَة , وَلَا مُخْتَلِطَة بِالرِّجَالِ , وَلَا شَابَّة وَنَحْوهَا مِمَّنْ يُفْتَتَن بِهَا , وَأَنْ لَا يَكُون فِي الطَّرِيق مَا يَخَاف بِهِ مَفْسَدَة وَنَحْوهَا . وَهَذَا النَّهْي عَنْ مَنْعهنَّ مِنْ الْخُرُوج مَحْمُول عَلَى كَرَاهَة التَّنْزِيه إِذَا كَانَتْ الْمَرْأَة ذَات زَوْج أَوْ سَيِّد وَوُجِدَتْ الشُّرُوط الْمَذْكُورَة , فَإِنْ لَمْ يَكُنْ لَهَا زَوْج وَلَا سَيِّد حَرُمَ الْمَنْع إِذَا وُجِدَتْ الشُّرُوط .

“From this hadith and other ahadith like this it appears that women should not be prohibited from the masjid, but with conditions that the scholars have mentioned and which are deduced from ahadith and these are:

1) She should not wear any perfume.

3) She should not be wearing jingling jewelry

4) She should not be wearing fancy clothes.

5) She should not mix with the men.

6) She should not be young, through whom fitna can erupt

7) The path to the masjid should be safe (i.e. there should be no fear of any problem on her way to and from the masjid).

Stopping them from going to the masjid will be lightly discouraged (makruh tanzihi) if she meets all the conditions listed here and has a husband or guardian. Stopping them will be haram when she meets all the conditions and does not have a husband or guardian.”

Women in the Masjid in the Time of the Prophet (Sall-Allahu Alayhi wa sallam)

Certainly there are authentic reports that tell us that women did attend the prayers at the masjid during the time of the Prophet, Sall-Alalhu Alayhi wa sallam. But they do not support the overall picture being painted by the coed masjid campaigners. Regarding women’s prayers in the masjid, we get this account:

عَنْ عَائِشَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهَا أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ كَانَ يُصَلِّي الصُّبْحَ بِغَلَسٍ فَيَنْصَرِفْنَ نِسَاءُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ لَا يُعْرَفْنَ مِنْ الْغَلَسِ أَوْ لَا يَعْرِفُ بَعْضُهُنَّ بَعْضًا

Aishah, Radi-Allahu anha, narrates that the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, used to pray Fajr at dusk and then the women would leave immediately without being recognized because of darkness and they would not recognize each other. [Bukhari, Kitab-ul-Azan Bab Sur’ati Insiraaf-inisaai min as-subh]

Another narration tells us:

عَنْ أُمِّ سَلَمَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهَا قَالَتْ كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِذَا سَلَّمَ قَامَ النِّسَاءُ حِينَ يَقْضِي تَسْلِيمَهُ وَيَمْكُثُ هُوَ فِي مَقَامِهِ يَسِيرًا قَبْلَ أَنْ يَقُومَ

Um Salamah, Radi-Allahu anha, reports that when the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, finished the prayer by saying salam, the women would stand up and leave while he was saying the salam. And he would stay in his place for a little while before standing up. [Bukhari, Kitab-ul-Azan Bab Salat-un-Nisa khalf-ar-Rijal]. Other narrations tell us that men also stayed with the Prophet, Salla-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, so the women could leave before men.

While both of these ahadith tell us that women were praying in the masjid, they also inform us that an overriding concern was that they should not be seen by men. The women left even as the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, was saying the salam. This act would be extremely rude if conducted by a man. Yet it was desirable for women, clearly pointing out that men and women are not the same. Further, all men stayed behind so the women could leave without encountering them. Needless to say, this is poles-apart from the mutual discussion, full participation, and collaboration being advocated.

Masjid Setting the Tone for the Islamic Society

There is something else worth reflecting upon here. Islam brought about a sea-change in the Jahilya society, including its ethics, morality, and cultural practices. The pre-Islamic Jahilya society was a coed society, just like the modern Jahilya society. Islam transformed it, introducing, among other things, the laws of hijab and segregation of men and women. Of course the masjid was the center of this cultural and moral revolution. It had to depict the new teachings in the purest way possible so they would be emulated everywhere. And it did. Women were fully covered, wore no perfume or jingling jewelry, stayed as far away from men as possible and left the masjid quickly after the salat so there would be no intermixing. Even on the way to and from the masjid, they would stay so far to the sides that they were practically scraping the walls of the buildings. (See Abu Dawud, Kitab-ul-Adab. Bab “Fi Mashyin nisaa-i ma’ar-rijaali fit-tareeq”)

Blocking the Means

Another thing to keep in mind is the well-established Islamic juristic principle of Sadd-udh-dharaai’, or the principle of blocking the means to sin. In life often one thing leads to another. An act of sin is not an isolated event but is preceded by chains of other events, which facilitate it. Therefore, Islam does not just forbid the final act, but also the preceding acts that can lead to it. There are hundreds of laws in Islamic jurisprudence that are based on this important principle. Consider alcohol. All its problems arise from its consumption. But Islam banned not just consumption of alcohol, but also making it, storing it, selling it, offering it, and even eating at a table where it is being served. This is blocking the means. One only needs to look at the spectacular success that Islam had in prohibiting alcohol and keeping the lands of Islam dry compared to the miserable failure of other societies in achieving that goal to appreciate the wisdom of the Islamic teachings.

Islam’s laws of hijab follow the same principle. Ultimately, it is the illicit extramarital relationships that are prohibited. But Islam does not limit itself to banning this final result. It also prohibits a number of other practices that could lead to this final sin. Again, the result speaks for itself. For centuries, Islam has provided an atmosphere of chastity and decency in its societies that remains unmatched by any other society. And this has been accomplished through the same laws of hijab and segregation of sexes that are under attack today.

Fuqaha on Women in the Masjid

We can gain further insight into this issue by looking at the positions of the schools of fiqh. This should dispel the myth that it I sonly some misguided Mullahs from the subcontinent that stand in the way of coed masajid.

Shafi’i Fiqh

Taken from the Reliance of the Traveler:

It is better for women to pray at home than at the mosque (A: whether they are young or old). It is offensive for an attractive or young woman to come to the mosque to pray (O: or for her husband to permit her), though not offensive for women who are not young or attractive when this is unlikely to cause temptation. (N: the authors words here must be interpreted in the light of the following details: If a woman in going to a group prayer or elsewhere will definitely lead to temptation between the sexes, it is unlawful for her to go. If such temptation can be definitely prevented her going to attend group prayer remains sunnah, as is attested to by the ahadith that have reached us on the subject. If temptation is feared but not certain to occur, her going becomes offensive. Whether such temptation is likely to occur is something that differs with different times, places, and people. An old woman is not like a young one, nor a righteous society like one in which temptation between the sexes is the rule; nor is a special prayer place set aside for women in a mosque like a prayer place which they share with men. This is why A’isha (Allah be well pleased with her) said:

“Had the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, seen what women do now, he would have forbidden them the mosque as the women of Bani-Israel were forbidden.” (A hadith reported by Bukhari and Muslim)

Hanafi Fiqh

Translated from Al-Lubaab:

And it is offensive for young women to attend the congregation at all, because in that there is a fear of fitna (but there is no harm that old women attend Fajr, Maghrib, and Isha). And that is according to Imam Abu Hanifah. And according to them (Imam Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad) old women can go out in every salah, because there is no fear of fitna because they lack attractiveness. According to Jawharatun Nayyara, the offensiveness is in all salah because of the appearance of fisq in our time period. The bad people come more during Zuhr, Asr, and Jumuah prayers while they are sleeping at the time of Fajr and Isha and eating at the time of Maghrib.

The positions of the Maliki and Hambali schools are also similar.


As has been shown above, the case for a full and equal participation by men and women without barriers in the main hall of the masjid, therefore, has no foundation in the Shariah.

However, women may have genuine needs for using the masjid and they have been permitted to do so. It is the responsibility of the administrators of a masjid to see to it that these needs are met by providing them with a safe, protected, and private space. Where women are denied entry in the masjid, or where they are required to enter the main hall, the situation should be corrected.

The central argument of the proponents of the coed masjid is that segregation is exclusion. But it is not. No one would take the demand seriously that medical and engineering students at a university must share the same classroom to prove that they are not unequal. Their needs are different, and so are their spaces.

The prohibition of free mixing of men and women and their equal, unrestrained participation in public affairs is not something to be ashamed of. This has been meant to provide for chastity and purity of hearts and conduct and that has been its result. In contrast, houses of worship of other religions became horrible centers of corruption on this account precisely because their leaders chose to ignore this principle. And as we become lax in this area we are seeing similar unfortunate incidents in the masajid in the West as well.

While the advocates of the coed masjid claim that they are asserting the rights of women, they are in fact denying the right of a private space to both men and women. The masjid is the pivot for the Muslim community. It has to be the place that sets the standards for proper behavior. It is the responsibility of everyone to protect it from all corruption, including the one promoted in the name of reform.

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