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When Islam clashes with women's rights

SHOULD A Muslim-American woman who publicly refuted commonly-held Islamic doctrine by leading men in Friday prayers be considered a champion of women's rights or a heretic?

Nearly two weeks ago, Amina Wadud, an African-American activist and a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, deliberately broke with Islamic tradition by leading a mixed-gender prayer service in public in New York City -- an act most male Muslim jurists consider unIslamic. She says she planned the prayer and sought publicity before the event, even though learned sheiks had issued warnings that her action would constitute heresy, in order to advance the rights of Muslim women. Now, she says she faces death threats, inspired in part by fatwas against her.

The sheiks ruling against Wadud say Islam bans a Muslim woman from leading prayers unless the worshipers are composed solely of other women. And their preference is for such a prayer service to be conducted in private, not public. All Islamic scholars ''agree that women do not lead men in (performing) religious duties," declared Sheik Yousef al-Qaradawi, a leading Islamic scholar based in Qatar. Responding to Wadud's actions he declared: ''One wishes our sisters who are enthusiastic about women's rights would revive the practice of women leading women in prayers, instead of coming up with the heresy of women leading men in prayers."

Since the prayer service, Muslims writing on Islamic websites and chat pages have condemned Wadud's actions; some have noted that she could be hanged if she held such a prayer session in an Islamic state. Many Muslim women have remarked that they are in favor of gaining more rights, but leading prayers is not one of them because this has never been permitted in Islamic tradition.

''It was a publicity stunt," one Muslim-American woman told me. ''The subject (of a woman leading prayers) is not even under discussion, much less on the priority list for Muslim women."

In Islamic tradition, women are generally required to pray in rows behind men or to pray in a separate section of the mosque. Many Islamic theologians believe it is not befitting for women to kneel and prostrate themselves under the glare of a man's eye, especially during prayers. And most Muslim women prefer to pray behind men in order to maintain modesty.

Considering the great weight of all this tradition, it is easy to understand the outrage surrounding Wadud's Friday service, and it is highly unlikely her actions will inspire the sheikhs issuing religious edicts to reconsider the holy texts they cite for justifying their opinions. In fact, her actions could produce a backlash for Muslim women who are struggling to win new freedoms.

Some Muslim-American women are fighting for an end to barriers, such as walls and curtains, separating them from men in mosques, the right to own property, and the right to an education. These are rights they believe existed for women during the time of the Prophet Mohammad, but were taken away over the centuries.

So why did Wadud do it, even realizing beforehand that her life could be threatened?

One reason is that Wadud sees herself as a leader in a movement of ''progressive Muslims," a small minority in America skilled at airing their views in the media. These ''progressive" Muslims believe that patriarchal tendencies in Islam are used merely to oppress women, not to remain true to the holy texts written centuries ago that form the basis of the faith. But this perspective is not shared by a majority of Muslims.

Another reason is that, as an African-American Muslim, Wadud reflects the views of some black Muslim women in America whose ideas are not always shared by immigrant Muslims.

Since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, there has been much discussion among African-American and immigrant Muslim-Americans over how to end decades of estrangement and hostility in order to defend Islam. While the gap is narrowing, it still remains. Wadud's decision to lead the Friday prayer has exposed the cultural and religious divide between African Americans with their roots in the civil rights movement and their coreligionists from the Islamic world.

Geneive Abdo, a research fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, is writing a book about Islam in America.

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