Traditional Friday jum’ah prayers led by a woman at a mixed-gender service, hailed as an historic first for Islam, were held March 18 at the Synod House of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a progressive Episcopal institution in New York City. An angry crowd of protesters across street were restrained by helmeted police armed with automatic rifles. Al-Jazeera TV was on hand with cameras as Muslim scholar Amina Wadud lead the service for some 150 worshippers following a short sermon in which she said: "Men and women are both equally essential in creation, and therefore reciprocally responsible for our relationship with Allah." New York’s Newsday pictured a protester outside the event with a sign reading "MAY ALLAH’S CURSE BE UPON AMEENA WADUD." Major Islamic organizations in New York were either silent on the event, or openly opposed to it. The city’s most established Muslim women’s organization, Women in Islam, came only as observers and did not participate in the prayer. But participants interviewed by Newsday were enthusiastic. Said Nasheet Zaman, 22, a college student who came down from Ithaca, NY, for the event: "I just want to be a part of history, I guess. I fully support the fact that Dr. Wadud, as a woman, in leading the prayer." (Newsday, March 19)
The sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque, generally held to be the foremost Islamic authority, said Islam permits women to lead other women in prayer but not a mixed congregation.
"A woman’s body is private,” Sheik Sayed Tantawi wrote in a column in the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram in response to the controversy. "When she leads men in prayer…it’s not proper for them to look at the woman whose body is in front of them. Even if they see it in their daily life, it shouldn’t be in situations of worship, where the main point is humility and modesty.” (AP, March 20)