The opinions of the scholars of the past are well-known on this issue. The vast majority of the scholars say that it is not proper or acceptable for a woman to lead a man in the prayer. The only exceptions to the majority known to this scholar are Abu Thaur and al-Muzani. Al-Tabari allows women to be Imams only for the taraweeh prayer and only if no men present had memorized the Quran.
More recently, others have made the claim that there is no harm in women leading men in prayers. Some have even claimed that it is permissible for a woman to lead men and women in the Friday Prayers or other obligatory congregational prayers in the mosque. Indeed, this has actually been done in practice. It is this particular issue that shall be dealt with here.
Two hadith need to be discussed here, one because it is an explicit statement regarding this question and another because it is the hadith that is often quoted to substantiate the claim that women can lead such prayers.
There is a hadith recorded by ibn Maajah which is very explicit on this particular question. However, there is no question that this hadith is weak and cannot be used as evidence in Islamic Law. The hadith is presented here in order for it to be known that it is weak and unacceptable as evidence on this question. The hadith as found in ibn Maajah states:
|أَلا لا تَؤُمَّنَّ امْرَأَةٌ رَجُلاً وَلا يَؤُمَّ أَعْرَابِيٌّ مُهَاجِرًا وَلا يَؤُمَّ فَاجِرٌ مُؤْمِنًا|
|“Truly, a woman should not lead a man in prayer, nor a Bedouin an Emigrant, nor an evildoer a believer…”|
The second hadith is the one most quoted by some contemporary authors on this point. It is often referred to as “the hadith of Umm Waraqah.” This hadith is recorded by Ahmad, al-Haakim in his Mustadrak, ibn al-Jaarood, ibn Khuzaimah, al-Baihaqi in al-Kubra and al-Sughra, Abu Dawood, al-Tabaraani and al-Daaraqutni. Since Sunan Abi Dawood is available in English, his recording of the hadith will be presented here as well as the translation as found in Ahmad Hasan’s translation of Sunan Abu Dawood. Abu Dawood records:
|حَدَّثَنَا عُثْمَانُ بْنُ أَبِي شَيْبَةَ حَدَّثَنَا وَكِيعُ بْنُ الْجَرَّاحِ حَدَّثَنَا الْوَلِيدُ بْنُ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ جُمَيْعٍ قَالَ حَدَّثَتْنِي جَدَّتِي وَعَبْدُ الرَّحْمَنِ بْنُ خَلَّادٍ الْأَنْصَارِيُّ عَنْ أُمِّ وَرَقَةَ بِنْتِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ نَوْفَلٍ الْأَنْصَارِيَّةِ أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَمَّا غَزَا بَدْرًا قَالَتْ قُلْتُ لَهُ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ائْذَنْ لِي فِي الْغَزْوِ مَعَكَ أُمَرِّضُ مَرْضَاكُمْ لَعَلَّ اللَّهَ أَنْ يَرْزُقَنِي شَهَادَةً قَالَ قَرِّي فِي بَيْتِكِ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ تَعَالَى يَرْزُقُكِ الشَّهَادَةَ قَالَ فَكَانَتْ تُسَمَّى الشَّهِيدَةُ قَالَ وَكَانَتْ قَدْ قَرَأَتْ الْقُرْآنَ فَاسْتَأْذَنَتْ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَنْ تَتَّخِذَ فِي دَارِهَا مُؤَذِّنًا فَأَذِنَ لَهَا قَالَ وَكَانَتْ قَدْ دَبَّرَتْ غُلَامًا لَهَا وَجَارِيَةً فَقَامَا إِلَيْهَا بِاللَّيْلِ فَغَمَّاهَا بِقَطِيفَةٍ لَهَا حَتَّى مَاتَتْ وَذَهَبَا فَأَصْبَحَ عُمَرُ فَقَامَ فِي النَّاسِ فَقَالَ مَنْ كَانَ عِنْدَهُ مِنْ هَذَيْنِ عِلْمٌ أَوْ مَنْ رَآهُمَا فَلْيَجِئْ بِهِمَا فَأَمَرَ بِهِمَا فَصُلِبَا فَكَانَا أَوَّلَ مَصْلُوبٍ بِالْمَدِينَةِ حَدَّثَنَا الْحَسَنُ بْنُ حَمَّادٍ الْحَضْرَمِيُّ حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ فُضَيْلٍ عَنْ الْوَلِيدِ بْنِ جُمَيْعٍ عَنْ عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ بْنِ خَلَّادٍ عَنْ أُمِّ وَرَقَةَ بِنْتِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ الْحَارِثِ بِهَذَا الْحَدِيثِ وَالْأَوَّلُ أَتَمُّ قَالَ وَكَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَزُورُهَا فِي بَيْتِهَا وَجَعَلَ لَهَا مُؤَذِّنًا يُؤَذِّنُ لَهَا وَأَمَرَهَا أَنْ تَؤُمَّ أَهْلَ دَارِهَا قَالَ عَبْدُ الرَّحْمَنِ فَأَنَا رَأَيْتُ مُؤَذِّنَهَا شَيْخًا كَبِيرًا|
Ahmad Hasan’s translation (vol. 1, pp. 155-156) is as follows: (591) Umm Waraqah daughter of Nawfal reported: When the Prophet (may peace be upon him) proceeded for the Battle of Badr, I said to him: Apostle of Allah allow me to accompany you in the battle. I shall act as a nurse for your patients. It is possible that Allah might bestow martyrdom on me. He said: Stay at your home. Allah, the Almighty, will bestow martyrdom upon you. The narrator said: Hence she called martyr. She read the Quran. She sought permission from the Prophet (may peace be upon him) to have a mu`adhdhin in her house. He, therefore, permitted her (to do so). She announced that her slave and slave-girl would be free after her death. One night they went to her and strangled her with a sheet of cloth until she died, and they ran away. Next day ‘Umar announced among the people: Anyone who has knowledge about them, or has seen them, should bring them (to him). ‘Umar (after their arrest) ordered (to crucify them) and they were crucified. This was the first crucifixion at Medina.
(592) This tradition has also been narrated through a different chain of transmitters by Umm Waraqah daughter of Abd Allah ibn al-Harith.  The first version is complete. This version goes: The Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) used to visit her at her house. He appointed a mu`adhdhin to call the adhan for her; and he commanded her to lead the inmates of her house of in prayer. ‘Abd al-Rahman said: I saw her mu`adhdhin who was an old man.
After recording this hadith, the great scholar of hadith ibn Khuzaimah said that it is a “strange sunnah” and he does not know of any other hadith bearing this meaning. Al-Daraqutni is quoted as having made a similar statement. Furthermore, there is no question that the authenticity of this hadith may be questioned. All of the people who recorded it recorded it through al-Waleed ibn Jumai’ from Abdul-Rahmaan ibn Khallaad, and there is some doubt concerning both of these narrators. In particular, al-Waleed has to be questioned if he reports something that is not supported by anyone else. Hence, in ibn Hibbaan’s al-Majrooheen (vol. 3, pp. 78-79), it states about him,
|الوليد بن جميع شيخ من أهل الكوفة يروي عن عبد الرحمن بن خلاد والكوفيين روى عنه عبد الله بن داود الخربي وأهل العراق كان ممن ينفرد عن الأثبات بما لا يشبه حديث الثقات فلما فحش ذلك منه بطل الاحتجاج به أخبرنا الهمداني قال حدثنا عمرو بن علي قال كان يحيى بن سعيد لا يحدث عن الوليد بن جميع|
Al-Waleed ibn Jumair, a sheikh from the people of Kufah. He narrated from Abdul-Rahmaan ibn Khallaad and people of Kufah. Abdullah ibn Dawood al-Kharabi and the people of Iraq narrated from him. He was from among those people who would solitarily narrate from trustworthy people hadith that would not resemble the hadith of trustworthy narrators. Since this was excessive on his part, one cannot use him as a relied upon source. Al-Hamadaani narrated to us that Amr ibn Ali said to him, “Yahya ibn Saeed would not narrate from al-Waleed ibn Jumai’.” [It must be noted that some people accept al-Waleed because ibn Hibbaan mentioned him in his other work, al-Thiqaat (Trustworthy Narrators), but this comment by ibn Hibbaan himself makes it clear that he is not acceptable under all circumstances.]
In Taqreeb al-Tahdheeb, ibn Hajar describes Abdul-Rahmaan as being مجهول الحال, meaning his condition as a narrator of hadith is not established. Hadith of someone of this nature would not be acceptable unless it is supported via another source. (It should though be noted that other scholars had a higher opinion of Abdul-Rahmaan. Although in the recently edited version of Taqreeb, edited by Basheer Maroof and Shuaib al-Arnaaoot, they argue that Abdul-Rahmaan is مجهول العين, meaning he is truly identified as a narrator since only one person is known to have narrated from him. This is a state lower than that described by ibn Hajar.)
Without going into any further details of the chains, this author can state that he is not completely convinced as to the authenticity of this hadith. Indeed, it seems that the hadith is weak. However, for the sake of argument it will be assumed that the hadith is hasan. In fact, the hadith scholar Muhammad Naasir al-Deen al-Albaani has graded it hasan in his discussion of the hadith of Sunan Abi Dawood.
This being the only pertinent acceptable hadith, a number of important points can be derived from this hadith—many of which go against the way that this hadith is being applied by a limited number of people today.
Most importantly, this hadith should certainly not be used by feminists as some kind of sign that the Muslim jurists have gotten the true picture of women in Islam wrong for so many centuries. Note what exactly occurred in this hadith: Umm Waraqah asked permission of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) to take part in the Battle of Badr. She did not ask permission to take part in the fighting. She only stated to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) that she would be able to tend to the ill and wounded. However, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) refused her request. Beyond that, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) ordered her to remain in her house, using the imperative form of the verb. (This is similar to the command made in al-Ahzaab 33, which people argue is only meant for the Prophet’s wives but this hadith of Umm Waraqah could be used to further show that it was for Muslim women in general.)
Again, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) ordered her to remain in her house and told her to the lead the inhabitants of her house in prayer. The following question must then be asked: How could this hadith possibly be used as evidence that a woman is allowed to lead the congregational prayer in a mosque? If she were to do that, she would be violating the command that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) gave to Umm Waraqah of remaining in her house and, furthermore, it would be deriving something from this hadith that is simply not in the hadith: the permissibility of women leading the prayers outside of their homes in the mosques (a practice, it should be noted, that was never done by any of the pious women of the early generations, including, to the best of what is recorded, Umm Waraqah herself).
Actually, there is nothing explicit in this hadith that Umm Waraqah led males in prayer. The basic ruling concerning males is that they are to pray in the mosque. This was a well-established practice during the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him)[a1] and afterwards during the time of the Companions. (There is no need to go into the numerous proofs for that view.) Hence, who would Umm Waraqah be leading in the obligatory prayers? It should have only been females and those males who were too young to be required to go to the mosques. Even her caller to prayer, the old man referred to by the non-Companion Abdul-Rahmaan, may have made the call to prayer for her and then gone to the mosque to prayer. That is not stated in the hadith but it is an acceptable assumption given the command for males to pray in the mosques and how that command was implemented during the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
It should also be noted that this incident took place during the time of Badr, before the revelations of soorah al-Noor and soorah al-Ahzaab, which put greater restrictions on the dress and movement of the believing women. Hence, this practice may have existed at one time but was later no longer practiced, as one can find no other evidence for this practice in any other report.
In sum, the absolute most that can be derived from the hadith of Umm Waraqah, if one concludes that it is an acceptable hadith, is that a woman can lead the male members of her household within the confines of her home if she is most qualified to the Imam. At the same time, on the other end of the extreme, the hadith also lends itself to the fact that Muslim women are requested to remain at home and, in general—although there are exceptions to this—they are not even expected to go out for jihad and try to become martyrs. There is nothing, though, in this hadith that would lend itself to the conclusion that it is permissible for women to lead men in prayer in congregational mosques or in the Friday Prayer. Such a conclusion would simply be reading more into the hadith than what the hadith states. Indeed, the hadith is not even explicit that Umm Waraqah would lead adult males of her household in prayer—which must be considered doubtful since such males of that time were known to perform the obligatory prayers in the mosque. And Allah alone knows best.