‘I follow the Quran’

Interview with Jamida, the first woman to lead mixed-gender Friday prayers in India.

Published : Feb 14, 2018 12:30 IST

Jamida leading Friday prayers in Malappuram.

Jamida leading Friday prayers in Malappuram.

More than 12 years ago, when Amina Wadud led mixed-gender Friday prayers in New York, it unleashed quite a storm. There were heated debates across the world, with both conservatives and progressives having strong views about it. Some hailed it as a brave move, aimed at breaking men’s monopoly on faith. Others criticised it for introducing new elements into religion not supported by the Quran or Hadith. It was called bidd’at . Amina Wadud kept her own counsel, and continued to lead prayers. And we continued to get photographs of men and women standing shoulder to shoulder and offering prayers behind her. Interestingly, hardly any men, and not all women, were seen covering their heads while offering prayers.

Now the ripples of her actions have reached India. Towards the end of January, the little-known Quran Sunnat Society in Malappuram in Kerala hit the headlines courtesy Jamida, who led mixed-gender Friday prayers. Jamida did not lead prayers in a mosque but in the private domain of the Quran Sunnat Society, but it was still a historic event. No woman had led Friday prayers anywhere in the country before. There have been innumerable instances of women leading prayers of fellow women, or women occupying a designated section in a mosque to offer prayers. But this was the first time that a woman led prayers and the congregation even had men.

The move unleashed a storm in the community. Even liberals within the community were ruffled. They agreed that a woman had the right to pray in a mosque, just like men, but said the move to make a woman the imam was not supported by the Quran or Hadith, tradition of the Prophet. Soon, people were questioning her knowledge of the scriptures. Many pointed out that her method of prayer too was not approved. For instance, in the joint prayer she led, Jamida did only one prostration in a rakat (cycle) as against the norm of two. Similarly, instead of using the phrase Sami’Allahu liman hamidah (Allah hears whosoever praises Him), she said Allah-o-akbar (God is great) while getting back to the standing position. All this was contrary to how the prayer is performed across the world.

Speaking to Frontline from her residence, Jamida, with some help from her father, countered the claims. “I do things only according to the Quran. The Quran does not talk of two prostrations. So I do only one sajda (prostration). The phrase ‘ Sami’Allahu liman hamidah ’ is not from the Quran. I follow the Quran. Nothing else. I feel that in Hadith a lot of interpolations were made by men. Not every Hadith which has reached us is authentic. The Quran is original. Not a word has changed since it was revealed more than 1,400 years ago. I follow the Quran.”

Even as she makes these claims, she fails to realise that the methodology of prayer itself comes from the practice of the Prophet. Nowhere does the Quran outline the procedure of prayer.

Excerpts from the interview:

You have created history by becoming the first woman to lead Friday prayers in India. Were both men and women present in the congregation in Malappuram?

There were both men and women, maybe around a 100. I don’t know the exact figure.

As far as leading prayers is concerned, the Quran does not say that there should be different codes for men and for women. It does not say only men have the right to lead prayers. The Quran addresses all believers; it does not say that women, or men, cannot lead prayers. Both can.

Who was your inspiration? Was it Amina Wadud who led prayers in New York more than 10 years ago?

She did this in 2005.

Was she your inspiration?

No. My inspiration is Chekannur Maulavi. He is a modernist who created the Quran Sunnat Society. When I thought of leading the prayers and tried to find out if anyone had done this before, I came to know about Amina Wadud. However, there is a difference. She performs the prayers according to Hadith. I do it exactly according to the Quran.

Do you realise you are leading prayers in a country where women, particularly in north and west India, are often not allowed in masjids? How do you fight this?

In 1922, when the Kerala Muslim Eikya Sangam was formed [the Nadwatul Mujahideen was formed in 1950 under the Kerala Jamiathul Ulama], they were the ones who first said that women can go to the mosque. Later, they said it was compulsory for them to go to the mosque. Then they said that women had the permission to go to the mosque. After that they took a stand that it was not compulsory. The prevailing stand is that it is not necessary. They believe that if women enter the mosque, that will violate its sanctity. That is the situation today.

They are trying to control women, treating them as second-class citizens. They want women to accept whatever they dole out ( audaaryam ) as freedom. This is the Islamic priests’ decision; the power of the priests. They are against any advancement of women. That’s why they came to the decision to not allow women to enter mosques and keep them out of leadership roles.

However, if you look at the Quran, wherever it talks of salat (prayer), it talks of establishing prayer, not just praying at home in seclusion. Was that realisation the turning point for you? When you establish prayer you have to go to the mosque, pray with other brothers and sisters; you cannot do it in isolation.

The clerics do not go by the Quran in all the instructions they give. They often do not know what is in the Quran. They go by Hadith. They cite “charitra rekhakal” [historical documents] to say “good” women should not go to the mosque, they are better off praying at home. For them, women with a sound moral character pray at home. They often quote a Hadith that a woman’s best prayer is in the innermost room of the house. But they have no evidence from the book [the Quran] in their favour. The Quran is the only solid evidence. And it addresses believing men and believing women, not just men. The Quran does not prohibit women from going to a masjid.

The Quran talks of establishing prayer and giving zakat 87 times…

Yes, the Quran says that...

Similarly, when the muezzin gives the azaan, he calls everyone. Why do you think women were excluded?

The Quran does not have the concept of the call ( azaan , or baang ) at all. The Quran says: “Verily, prayers are enjoined on the believers at stated times.” It doesn’t explain how the call should be. In Arabic, you can’t even find a definition of hayyaa as come . Thus, the use of the word hayyaa is wrong. It is not said in the Quran that if you come for prayer you will get victory. The Quran says that we have to establish prayer, meaning we have to protect our prayers. It says that some people might disturb the prayer (alludes to a verse from Surah Nisa when the believers were commanded to pray in batches rather than all at once with a view to keeping an eye on the enemy).

Are you not afraid people may say that something like this did not take place at the time of the Prophet, that the clergy will hit back at you?

Speaking of time, the Quran does not specify the times to pray. But it does say one should pray at the beginning and the end of the day (dawn and dusk), and a few times during the night.

But the Quran clearly talks of five daily prayers...

It does. I am not doing anything against the Quran.

You talk of the Quran, but even in Hadith women have led prayers. The Prophet’s wife, Aisha, also led prayers, but for women. How do you explain your stand?

I take only the Quran as proof. I don’t follow Hadith. Take Aisha. It is said she led 16 wars. Would these people go to war under a woman?

What about Friday prayers, can they be offered outside the masjid? For Friday prayers one has to go to the mosque.

There is no proof in the Quran that you are supposed to go to the mosque to pray. [Repeats it forcefully.] There is no proof in the Quran that you are supposed to go to the mosque to pray.

How has the response of the common people been?

It will definitely not be good. Since the men have kept it closed for 1,400 years, they will definitely not like it.

Will you lead prayers in the future?

Yes, sure I will.

And taraweeh in Ramzan?

I have already led the Ramzan taraweeh prayer when I was in the Kerala Nadwatul Mujahideen. I will do so this year also.

Are you aware that a section of society alleges that you have been propped up by the RSS, that you have attended their camps?

What can I say? People will say whatever they want to when you challenge a centuries-old practice. But those who speak like this are either from the Communist parties or from the Jamaat-e-Islami. But it is a no-win situation. The RSS people will say I am from the Jamaat. The Jamaat people will claim I come from the RSS.

But photographs have been circulated where you are seen with some RSS workers, and some people who attended the prayers have also allegedly been seen at RSS camps?

Again, what is not possible today? Interpolation is possible. But leave all that aside. Please tell them I will not go against the Quran. I have not done it. I will not do it. They can rest content.

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