Call to Prayer, Sisterhood, and Female Leadership
Gold and green balloons strained to be released and soar into the sky at midday on Friday, January 30, at the entrance to the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles, once one of the oldest synagogues in LA, now an interfaith and multicultural arts center that regularly hosts multiple religious communities. This house of worship, with its huge multicolored stained-glass Star of David, was about to become the weekly home of the first all-women’s mosque in America and the site of the first jummah prayer in LA led exclusively by women.
An air of celebration and expectation pervaded as modestly attired women – most wearing the traditional hijab head scarf – crowded into the large sanctuary where most of the pews had been removed, creating a spacious open prayer space on the burgundy carpet, now covered by gold-toned sheets. The women entered, removed their shoes, and began to congregate excitedly in small groups, some with children and babies in tow. Two large vertical banners adorned with calligraphy and quotes from the Quran flanked the pulpit on the stage.
Mona Abdullah, from Buffalo, New York, would soon fulfill a life-long dream to chant the opening call to prayer, which she has practiced at home for 35 years.
Women’s mosques reportedly have cropped up in China, India, Chile, Uzbekistan, Maldives, Somalia, Germany, and elsewhere. On this day, though, Muslim history was being made in a Los Angeles synagogue.
In the foyer, a dynamic, articulate young woman without a head covering identified herself as Amal Syed, director of Islamic Scholarship for the new Women’s Mosque. “One of our goals is the study of Islam to make greater education and greater understanding available for everyone, and to that end we will be partnering with Bayan Claremont,” a new graduate school designed to educate Muslim scholars and religious leaders. They also want to help women read the Quran from beginning to end, to create a circle of education, and to be an agency for women’s health issues and domestic violence.
Contemporary scholars say there is no Quranic injunction against establishing a woman’s mosque or of women leading prayers for other women. Nor can you find historical consensus against it in the commentaries of the Hadith. It is not forbidden, they agree. Yet tradition dies hard.
Fully cognizant of the flak the female mosque founders have and will continue to receive from traditional quarters, Syed smiled broadly, exclaiming, “We want to ground ourselves in Islamic scholarship and express love towards opinions that we don’t share but recognize as part of our extended Islamic family. Because there is a diversity of opinions in the Islamic world, and because we are an intellectual as well as a spiritual tradition, there are definitely those who do not support what we are doing. They think we have not done our homework or that what we’re doing is not going to be accepted by God. Personally, I believe we have come here in a spirit of prayer, of submission, of love, and I believe with those intentions God would never turn away from us.
Also in attendance was Ani Zonneveld, founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV). Founded in 2005, MPV has six chapters in the U.S., five internationally, and has been recognized as an NGO at the UN. “Women need the self-confidence to know that they too can be spiritual leaders. I hope what happens today will be part of the sea of change in the next 15-20 years . . . that when their children will go back to the traditional mosques they will be familiar with women as spiritual leaders. That is the ideal Islam, the true Islam, where everyone is equal. At the end of the day we’re going to be judged by the good deeds we do, not by age, gender, race, creed, or religion.”
The two founders of the first women’s mosque, M. Hasna Maznavi, 29, a film director and TV comedy writer, and Sana Muttalib, 31, a lawyer, represent a new generation of accomplished professional Muslim women who are eager for leadership within their religious community. After feeling excluded at traditional mosques, Maznavi said she would like every women to experience what it feels like to learn from a female religious authority in the mosque.
Muslim women have caused shock waves before. Dr. Amina Wadud was the first female to lead a mixed-congregation prayer in 2005 in the U.S. None of the local mosques would agree to hold the service, so it was scheduled to take place in a Manhattan art gallery but, because of a bomb scare, it had to be moved. In an interfaith gesture of hospitality, the Synod House hosted the service at the Cathedral St. John Divine, while outside angry protestors carried placards denouncing this new development as a violation of the Muslim faith and the beginning of the downfall of Islam. “The radical notion that women are full human beings is already inscribed in Islam,” the courageous Dr. Wadud pointed out at the time.
Most of the world currently views Muslim women in the Middle East, Far East, and Africa as oppressed or “less than” in the eyes of their fathers, brothers, and other men who rule their world. Many Muslim women themselves do not know details of the illustrious Muslim women who have served as role models in religion, education, business, and government, beginning from the time of the Prophet Mohamed.
For example, Nusayba bint Ka’b Al-Ansariyah was one of the first advocates for the rights of Muslim women. She supposedly, provocatively asked the Prophet why God only addresses men in the Quran. Soon after it is said that the Prophet received a revelation that became verse 35 of chapter 33, where it says: “The women can attain every quality to which men have access.” Nusayba is often spoken of as “a visionary who transcended her own generation.”
In the 9th century, Fatima al-Fihri established the first degree-granting university in the Middle East, in Morocco. She also built the Al Qarawiyyin mosque. From the 10th to the 12th centuries, the mosque developed into a university – Al Qarawiyyin University – recognized today by the Guinness Book of World Records and UNESCO as “the oldest continuously operating institution of higher education in the world.”
On January 30, 2015, the women at the first all woman-mosque in Los Angeles felt they were making their own history.
The first to deliver the Khutbah, the Friday sermon traditionally delivered only by men, was Edina Lekovic, daughter of Bosnian parents and a spokesperson for the Muslim Political Affairs Council. She shared her personal story.
“The difference between my mom and me is that she grew up without any direct understanding of the Quran. It was handed down to her as a set of rules and customs that were not to be questioned or broken. With an elementary education, she didn’t read the Quran until she was middle aged.
“My understanding was the same for my childhood and teenage years, and I believed all the stereotypes, especially the ones about women. Then I went to college and read the Quran on my own and realized that God says men and women are equal in creation, that women are equal partners in their families, workplaces, mosques, and society. My daughter will have a very different reality as an American Muslim woman. Just like having a black president is now normal for young children, for Laila, a women’s mosque will be normal, and that’s a major step forward.”
Praise, gratitude, and expressions of sisterhood were the primary responses offered by the women who were present, a supportive audience of some 150 that included at least 15 women from the Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist communities
Two Jewish sisters, Chelsea Cutler, 30, and Tess Cutler, 26, a journalist for the Jewish Journal, expressed their particular pleasure at having attended the first all-women Muslim service in one of the oldest synagogues of Los Angeles and having the privilege of being interfaith witnesses. Their father, Rabbi Jerry Cutler, a sixth generation rabbi, is a liberal religious leader at the Creative Arts Temple in Los Angeles. Tess noted how the interfaith community had supported the event, including six women from a local Buddhist Zen center.
Yemen-born Sumaya Abubaker, a Muslim who has also worked in the interfaith community for many years, pointed to her belly and laughed in delight. “Speaking of witnesses, my daughter-in-utero will undoubtedly be considered the youngest female to have attended this historical service at the first women’s mosque of America!”
Summing up the significance of the day in a short but eloquent phrase, Edina told the smiling audience: “Insh’allah: onward and upward!”