Woman leads mixed Friday congregation in Canada
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: Despite predictions that anyone who joined a Friday prayer congregation led by a woman will burn in the fires of hell, well over 200 men and women gathered in a mosque in a Toronto suburb in defiance of orthodox opinion.
The prayers, which took place in a mosque in the North Etobicoke neighbourhood, were led by Pamela Taylor, a Harvard-trained Islamic scholar who became a Muslim in 1986, but retained her given name because she believes in so doing she is following the sunnah of the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) who let everyone who embraced Islam to keep his or her given name.
This is the first time a woman led a Friday congregation in a Canadian mosque. The event, which some of those who helped organise it, consider to be historic, coincided with Canada Day, the annual national holiday. There are also people in the community who believe this was no more than a “media circus” to defy the conservative Muslim establishment in Canada and the United States.
In her sermon, Ms Taylor, co-chair of the New York-based Progressive Muslim Union, dwelt on the importance of equality between races, genders, sexual orientations and persons with disabilities. “Canada is the Islamic ideal,” she told the worshippers, citing the country’s lack of “imperialistic escapades.” She praised Canadian society for allowing its people to act as the conscience of the Muslim world and to speak out against the oppression of repressive regimes. Ms Taylor is an American who holds a divinity degree from Harvard and a degree in East Asian studies from the University of British Columbia. Last November, Maryam Mirza, a York University, Toronto, student, delivered part of the sermon marking the end of the month of Ramadan at a “liberal” mosque, but she did not lead the prayers. The first Canadian woman to do so in a backyard, because of threats from the orthodox, was Raheel Raza.
Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Council, called the sponsors of the event “a fringe group.” He said, “This is a non-issue for Canadian Muslims and must be ignored by the community. It usually becomes a media circus and an opportunity to label Muslims.” He told a Canadian newspaper that the issue of woman-led prayers is one of tradition, not sexism. Women are free to give talks and lectures but, traditionally, men lead the prayers and most practising Muslims in Canada respect that, he added.
According to a report, not everyone was impressed by “imam” Taylor’s performance. Ehab Lotayef, an Arab Muslim, said Ms. Taylor’s recitation of Arabic during the prayers was poor and her message in her sermon was unoriginal. “I don’t have a problem women leading prayers,” he said, but many things were pushed “beyond the envelope.” There was nothing explosive about what she told the congregation, he added.
Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress said by allowing a woman to lead prayers, the UMA mosque is not trying to impinge upon how other mosques choose to worship. “Nowhere in the holy Quran is it prohibited for women to lead the prayers,” he said. “I am tired of people who are dragging us backwards into history.” He said he and the congregation would not be intimidated by threats, and should not be judged by any other congregation. “If Muslim men are scared of having women as imams, they need to examine their own misogyny,” he stated.