On Banning Women's Voices While Living in the Modern World

Some years ago, I took the position in a khutbah that I would not engage in a discussion justifying the practice of women giving the adhan or doing the iqama. If I remember correctly, I said that in light of the enormous challenges facing Muslims in our day and age, it was incredible to be concerned with this level of minutiae. In an age when so much of what is core to Islam and Muslims has been lost, and when the pulsating heart of Islam is under occupation, the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the very site for which thousands upon thousands of Muslims sacrificed their lives over the centuries, it was simply embarrassing to want to engage in this type of discourse. I remember saying something to the effect that I would not indulge in such a discussion. 


Recently, however, I was contacted by an Islamic school in California. Apparently, this Islamic school allows girls to do the iqama for prayer, and the principal of the school contacted me because someone had sent him a letter objecting to this practice, asking the principal how he could allow such a practice that was “clearly forbidden” in Islam. Making a sociological point, this objector also asked the principal, "And when you allow these girls to do the iqama, what are you preparing them for in the future?" The implication is, I think, clear. In the future, these girls will not be allowed to do the adhan or the iqama, so is this principal not, in fact, setting up these girls for disappointment because they are engaging in a practice that, in real life, they will never be allowed to do? So there were two separate points, the first that the practice is haram and the second, that the principal is creating a sense of false consciousness or false expectation, setting these girls up for disappointment. It is interesting that the parent who wrote to the principal attached an Arabic text as “proof” that it is clear and well-established that women are not allowed to give the adhan or the iqama, and I am quite familiar with this particular Arabic text.


This incident raises pedagogical points, moral points, and social points. It raises the whole issue of our relationship to the Islamic tradition at large. Often, these simple points are illustrative of how we approach and relate to our inherited tradition, particularly our normative tradition of “dos” and “don’ts,” in other words, our normative legal tradition. Because of its illustrative and educational value, I have decided to talk about this issue in this khutbah, focusing on questions of approach and interpretation, particularly how we relate to the paradigm of God's command and God's will. As with every week, there are grand happenings in the Muslim world that demand our attention, but I will take this opportunity to address this example and to stress some specific points that deserve emphasis. 


Obviously, the practice of presenting an Arabic text that represents the Islamic legal tradition has its purposes. It is supposed to convey authoritativeness. It is supposed to resolve the discussion and represent clear evidence of the Divine will. And this is, indeed, in principle, what it should do. For what is Islam and Muslims about if we do not care about what God wants? Our entire relation to life on earth should be about what God wants, what God wills, and what God expects from us and for us. And we access the Divine will through either the literal speech of God or through reliable sources that indicate God's will to us in one form or another. That is precisely why we go to the traditions of the Prophet, the traditions of ahl al-bayt (the family of the Prophet), or the traditions of the Companions of the Prophet. Not because their own opinion is dispositive or decisive, but because they are evidence of God's will and what God expects from us. 


Yet, any person who positions themselves as a representative of the Islamic legal tradition bears a heavy responsibility. This is a morally burdened act, an ethically charged act, an act of the most serious nature. We are familiar with God’s warning in the Qur’an against making the haram, halal or the halal, haram (Q 16:116). In other words, we are warned about speaking on behalf of God and all that that entails. The more we claim to be authoritative spokesmen of God's will, the heavier the moral responsibility we bear. If representing the will of a human being is a serious matter; if representing the will of your children, your parents, your friends, or an electorate is a serious matter; then pause and think about the implications of representing God's will.


There are serious methodological issues here. Why so? Think about the practice of silencing women in religious spaces. Think about what this determination of the Divine will entails, especially for our children. Are we telling these girls that religious spaces always belong to men, and that God does not want to hear their voices? Are we telling them that the voices that God gave them are a form of ‘awrah to God? “Yes, God created you, but God does not want to hear you. God wants you in God's space, but God does not want to hear your voice.” Immediately, many people will say, "No, no, that is not what we are saying.” But pause and think. Are we telling these girls, "I might hear you, as a woman, as a teacher in my school. I might hear you as a professor in my university. I might hear you as my representative in Congress. I might hear you as my mother, my aunt, or my wife. I might hear you, as a woman, in countless contexts. But I may not hear you, as a woman, saying the words of the adhan”? Is that what we are telling these girls? What, exactly, are we saying about our relationship to God, to our Shari'a, and to our tradition? The issue is not that God does not want to hear these girls. The problem is with Muslim men. The problem is that Muslim men may hear a woman as their teacher, as their boss at work, or as their wife, sister, or mother, but Muslim men may not hear women declaring takbirs, the Shahadah, and so on. 


Pause and think about this. The paradox is that the same people who say women cannot do the adhan or the iqama, or that they may do so only in the presence of other women, have no objection to the practice of female Qur'an reciters. At several huge Islamic conventions, it has become common to invite a female Qur'an reciter to open proceedings. But these same people insist that a woman giving the adhan is haram. If you can listen to a woman reciting the Qur'an, why can you not listen to a woman performing the adhan? Typically, the response is to say, "When it comes to matters of ‘ibada (worship), we do not use logic. We follow commands." But this is precisely the point, because the example of women giving the adhan and iqama amply illustrates how we project so much cultural and historical baggage onto the religious text, raising very serious questions of interpretation, morality, and ethics, leave alone our relationship to our history and tradition.


Let me take us on a quick stroll through the juristic tradition on the adhan and iqama. First, as with so many Islamic legal issues, there is no singular tradition. There is a rich tradition that must be investigated, analyzed, and studied. There is, indeed, a hadith in which the Prophet does not speak in terms of haram but says that women are not obligated to give the adhan or iqama. This hadith is not clear on the context, that is, whether this adhan or iqama is in the presence of other men or women, or for when women are praying alone. There is a school of thought that states that even when you pray alone, it is still mandated to do the adhan and iqama before you pray. But because that position is inconvenient for men, we never hear about it. This is not like something that relates to women, of course. When men have the opportunity to legislate for women, we certainly hear about it. 


So the hadith does not tell us anything about the context. But, more importantly, this hadith is clearly inauthentic. That is why we can read plenty of books of fiqh but we will not find any jurist mentioning this hadith. Beyond this hadith, we have some interesting examples. There is a report in which Aisha is reported to have given both the adhan and the iqama. This is related from Ibn al-Mundhir and others. In one version of this report, Aisha gave the adhan and iqama before she prayed. It does not specify where or when she did it. In another version of the report, it is said that when Aisha prayed jumu‘a with other women, she did the adhan and the iqama, and that she did this on more than one occasion. Yet, we have another tradition in which Aisha is reported to have prayed jumu'a, leading other women in prayer, but did not do the adhan or the iqama. We have yet another tradition that Umm Waraqa, the woman whom the Prophet predicted would be martyred, used to lead her household in prayer and would give the adhan and iqama before she did so. This tradition is related from Abu Bakr Ibn al-Furak. 


There are, of course, a number of issues about the legal significance of Umm Waraqa reportedly leading her household in prayer and doing the adhan and iqama beforehand. The legal tradition is succinctly summarized by Imam al-Ghazali in his al-Wasit. Al-Ghazali says there are three points of view on the issue of women doing the adhan and iqama. One point of view is that she can do the adhan and iqama. The second point of view is that she should not do the adhan or iqama. The third point of view is that it is permissible for her to do the iqama, but not the adhan. Al-Ghazali then goes on to discuss the reasons for the great indeterminacy in the tradition. Even Imam al-Shafi'i, in his Kitab al-Umm, says, “We disfavor women performing the adhan, but since the purpose of the adhan is to let people know the time for prayer, a woman’s adhan is effective.” Al-Shafi’i adds that it is mustahhab (favored), if there is no man to do the iqama, that a woman should do the iqama. Some early Shafi’is say not only that it is not haram, but that an adhan or iqama done by a woman counts as dhikr. Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq is reported to have said that no prohibition has been proven on the matter and, indeed, that if no male performs the adhan or iqama, it is better that a woman does it. 


The early opinions have a great deal of back and forth for a very simple reason: no clear prohibition has been proven from the Prophet. There is no clear text in which the Prophet said that women may not read the Qur'an in public, recite the Qur'an in public, or do the adhan or the iqama. What the early opinions did rely on is practice. In other words, at the time of the Prophet, it is not reported that a woman gave the adhan or the iqama before prayer led by the Prophet. But the problem with this as a legal matter is that this cannot be taken as a proof of prohibition because of the absence of opportunity for the subject matter to arise in the first place. There was always the Prophet to lead prayer. There was always Bilal to perform the adhan. There was always ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib who reportedly performed the iqama if it was not performed by Bilal. There was never the opportunity to ask anyone but these figures to do the adhan and iqama.


Can silence be taken as proof of prohibition? The clear answer is no. Absence cannot be taken as proof of presence. The absence of something cannot be proof of the presence of something. Inaction cannot be taken as proof of action. The fact that it was not done cannot be taken as proof of anything. The fact that the Prophet did not say anything cannot be taken as proof that this is God's affirmative will. 


Later scholars did find a prohibition against women doing the adhan or iqama in public, so what did they rely on? Most jurists relied on the presumption that a woman's voice should not be heard because it could open the door to fitna. Let us be clear about this. These jurists, because they were proper jurists, knew that they had to be consistent across the board when they ruled that a woman's voice should not be heard on the basis of fitna. So, in their minds, it is not that women can recite the Qur'an but are forbidden from doing the adhan. Rather, women are forbidden from both. It is not that women can give a lecture but are forbidden from doing the adhan. To their minds, both are forbidden. They knew that one must be consistent. They knew to oppose the voice of women being heard whether it is reciting the Qur'an, doing the adhan, or doing anything in public life. 


Were they justified in their day and age? I do not know. But was it understandable? Yes, it was, because the societies that existed shortly after the death of the Prophet, all the way through to the colonial age, were societies that supported and embraced an empire, and imperial societies in the pre-modern age were thoroughly patriarchal. Women were tolerated if they were in the annals of power. Otherwise, men dominated public life. It was men who fought the wars. Men built the roads. Men built the dams and the bridges. It was men who controlled the public space. And men thought the primary role of a woman was to support her man. There are exceptions, of course, but the nature of patriarchal society is that the woman belongs to the private realm of the man. The minute Islam supported an imperial entity, an empire, even the best efforts of the Prophet could not change the dominance of this patriarchal paradigm in public life, and it would be disingenuous to assume otherwise. The basic presumption, then, was that the voice of a woman belonged in her household. She should be heard by her man and no one else, because a woman is her man's business, no one else’s.


Is this God's will? I believe you would be gravely mistaken to think so. Has this been the nature of human society for most of history? Absolutely. So it made perfect sense for these jurists to think, "Why should women be heard making the adhan? They should not be heard doing anything." Ironically, these jurists reacted differently when it came to women reciting poetry, because their societies did not think of women reciting poetry as somehow violating the rules of proper conduct. Search as long as you want, but you will not find a jurist who said it is haram for women to publicly recite poetry, even among the same jurists who said it is haram for a woman to be heard giving a lecture, speaking, or raising her voice in public.


To the credit of these jurists, unlike modern Muslims, they justified the operative cause of the law, the ‘illa, not on any affirmative evidence of the Divine will but on the presumptive basis of the fitna posed by women's voices. None claimed that this is what God affirmatively ordered. Rather, they would say, "As a matter of social organization, we do not want to open up the door to that evil"—the evil of female voices heard in public becoming a source of fitna.


It was understandable for these jurists to be molded and formed by their historical and cultural moment, but what about us? Do we still raise our daughters with the paradigm that their voices are ‘awra and should not be heard? Some Hanafi jurist said it is “shameful” to hear a woman’s voice in public, even if the adhan, something that good people just do not do. What type of future generations are we creating when we are so inconsistent to the point that we sound like irrational, even crazy, people? For we will, with a straight face, tell our daughters that they cannot do the adhan or the iqama but that women reciting the Qur'an to open Islamic conventions is okay. On what basis? Or we tell our daughters that they cannot do the adhan or the iqama, but we want them to attend college, work hard for the future, do the very best they can, and find a great job. That job could be as a teacher in a mixed school, of course, teaching boys and girls. Well, follow the logic that a woman's voice is ‘awra. It means a female teacher cannot teach a mixed class of boys and girls. It means a doctor cannot do a presentation before male doctors, nor can an engineer pitch for a job if male executives are sitting in the audience.


What is this paradigm, and what justifies this paradigm in this day and age, an age when the most obscene pornography is but a click away, an age when our children display themselves on social media? What do we think the reaction of our daughters will be when we tell them that in this world, with all its insanity, what matters is that God does not want to hear them do the adhan? I do believe that some mistakes in Shari'a, such as the notion that a woman's voice is ‘awra, can be justified by the historical moment. I believe God will say, "I forgive you, al-Ghazali. I forgive you, Abu Hanifa. I forgive you for getting it wrong because you could not think beyond the parameters of your age. You were raised in a patriarchal society. You thought of women as part of your privately controlled world. So, I understand why you made that mistake.” But what about us? What about when God asks us, "Why have you made My law appear so absurd, so oppressive, so alienating, scaring generations away from Me?” What are we going to say?


That is why I chose to focus on this incident. It amply illustrates the frustrations of dealing with modern Muslims in their treatment of the Shari'a.


A recent story caught my attention that illustrates the difference when people are blessed by rationality, learning, and education. The article talks about the Islamic tradition of the bimaristan, sometimes called the maristan, which were essentially hospitals, and how Muslims pioneered the field of humanistic hospitals in which eye surgery, brain surgery, and heart surgery were performed. In the most prestigious hospitals of the Islamic civilization, Muslims also pioneered musical therapy as a form of treatment. Upon reading this, of course, I remembered my previous khutbah on music. When Muslims were blessed by civilization, they could see how music could be used for good, for the promotion of human health. In fact, they pioneered the field of music therapy. If only the ‘ulama who pioneered this field would come to our day and age and see the vehemence by which some Muslims continue to support what is unnatural.


Every week, so many things seem to cry for our attention. Every time you choose a topic and forgo others, you do so with a mixed heart. But I want to quickly mention an article that talks about how there have been over 250 hate speech gatherings in the first half of 2023 in India. There is a field of study in which scholars study genocides, the history of genocides, and research genocidal conditions, that is, the events that lead up to genocides. What gave me chills is that 250 hate speech gatherings in the first half of 2023 alone is clear evidence of a looming genocide. This is precisely what we call genocidal conditions. If you are Muslim, if you care at all about what will happen to Muslims in India, if you care at all about the Muslims of Kashmir, if there is an ounce of decency as a Muslim in you, then you will look into what you can do. You will create organizations to lobby Congress to demand action by our government to demand that the U.S. punishes the government of India. Perhaps we can prevent the genocide that is sure to come if things continue at the rate they are going.


I know Muslims do not read or study, but that is no excuse before God. The clouds of genocide are gathering on the horizon. The evidence is simply terrifying. This is a situation in which I believe the U.S. government, the Saudi government, and the Emirati government can actually prevent the occurrence of a genocide. If India received a clear message that committing a genocide against Muslims is going to cost them, it would make a difference. But right now, there is no cost. They are getting exactly the opposite message: “You can rape Muslims, you can release the rapists, you can massacre Muslims, you can destroy their mosques, and there are no consequences.” The Bosnians, the Uyghurs, the Rohingya: when will the Muslim consciousness wake up? 


Another quick point. Some of you, I am sure, have heard about the 17-year-old girl who was sentenced to 18 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for a simple tweet in which she expressed support for political prisoners. Of course, this follows an incident in which a retired man, Muhammad al-Ghamdi, was sentenced to death for a tweet. That followed another case where a student at Leeds University was sentenced to 34 years in prison for, again, a simple tweet. So I cannot describe my feelings when I saw Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) sitting in an interview with Fox News. When asked about these immoral penalties, he said, "Yes, I hate them, too. I am shocked by them. They are because of bad laws, but it is not my fault because it is like how it is in the United States. When the jury has a verdict, you have to respect it, and it is the same in Saudi Arabia. The judiciary is independent and I have no power to do anything about these sentences." The interviewer knows it is nonsense. MBS knows it is nonsense. Anyone with half a brain knows it is nonsense. They know that MBS controls the law at will, and that the notion of the rule of law in Saudi Arabia is a myth. But what really hurts is how this type of cruelty and barbarism, whether we like it or not, will reflect on Islam and the Shari'a. When MBS says, "These are laws that I cannot do anything about,” the clear implication is that these are Shari'a judges who rule according to Shari'a law, so MBS cannot intervene. What are we doing to the Shari'a? What are we doing to the embodiment of God's will when these people are in control of our Holy Sites?


My final point. I previously mentioned the shameful incident in which a group of Zionist organizations—the same type of Zionist organizations that, incidentally, recently awarded ‘Abdullah bin Bayyah a peace award, which he accepted, remarkable as it sounds—tried to get a book at Princeton University banned, The Right to Maim: Disability, Capacity, and Disability. The book is written by Jasbir Puar, and the professor at Princeton who assigned the book in her course is Satyel Larson. These organizations tried to get Princeton to order the professor to remove the book from the syllabus and Princeton refused, as they should, because Princeton respects academic integrity and academic freedom. The professor, indeed, kept the book on the syllabus, but a recent article talks about what these organizations did in response. Incredibly, they organized billboards that attacked the president of Princeton for being an “anti-semite” and described the book as an “anti-semitic work,” and they hired trucks that drove around Princeton, attacking the president of the university, the professor, and the book.


I bought the book, as should you, just to make a point. The book presents empirical data, documented by human rights and U.N. organizations, that point to the undeniable record of Palestinian kids who go out and demonstrate and are shot with bullets that cripple them. The bullets are often shot in a way that shows intentionality, pointing to the clear policy of the occupying forces: "If you protest, we will maim you," and, in many cases, "We will kill you." They often shoot people in the head. If not, many are shot in a way that causes permanent physical impairment. The author of the book tells us to look at this undeniable empirical evidence. But these Zionist organizations are telling us to ignore the empirical record, to not believe the numbers, and to not believe the reality. It is a thoroughly racist paradigm. "They are evil, we are good, regardless of what the evidence says." 


But my point is not about the morality of these people because, obviously, they have none. My point is that one of the worst things is when you have to admire evil. They are evil, their cause is evil, and their message of censorship, lies, and oppression is evil. But just look at their level of commitment and investment, spending money on billboards and hiring trucks to drive around campus. Meanwhile, it is so hard to get Muslims to part with their money to support a project about the Qur'an, leave alone billboards about a cause in a foreign land.


Reflect upon how our intellect works. For I see an intimate connection between the Muslim psyche that makes women giving the adhan and iqama an issue worth pursuing, on the one hand, but is complacent and non-reactive when it comes to their fellow Muslims being tortured, killed, and raped, on the other. I see them as intertwined, interconnected, and, indeed, inseparable.

The Movement to Reinvigorate Beautiful and Ethical Islam has begun.  Join us.

Your donation to The Institute for Advanced Usuli Studies will help fund important work to combat extremism and ignorance. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity dedicated to research and education to promote humanistically beautiful and morally elevating interpretations of Islam. We seek to support our brightest minds to advance knowledge and to build a community of individuals founded on dignity, respect and love for all of God's creation. See The Usuli Institute Credo for our statement of values. Please give generously to support a beautiful, reasonable and vibrantly human Islam for future generations to come. All donations are tax-deductible and zakat eligible.


Subscribe to Our E-mail List for Weekly updates and Latest News: