Are there limits on women’s participation in the mosque’s social and intellectual activities?

By : Dr. Jasser Auda

The answer is no. Women participated in a number of social activities during the time of the Prophet (s). The following are examples, some of which were quoted earlier in various contexts:

Al-Rubayyi` Bint Mu`awwidh Ibn Afra’ (r), said that the Messenger of Allah (s) sent a person on the morning of Ashura to the villages of Ansar around Medina with this message:

“He who got up in the morning fasting he should complete his fast, and he who had had his breakfast in the morning, he should complete the rest of the day in fasting.” So, we henceforth observed the fast on it and, God willing, made our children observe that. We used to go to the mosque and make toys out of wool for the children so that when they felt hungry and wept for food we gave them these toys to distract them, till it was time to break the fast.[1] 

Aisha (r) narrated, as was mentioned earlier:

“Sa`d Ibn Muaz was wounded on the Battle of the Al-Khandaq (The Ditch) … Then, the Prophet (s) set up a tent in the mosque for Sa`d to be able to visit frequently.”[2] Commenting on this particular narration, Ibn Hajar stated that: “The Messenger of Allah (s) actually let Sa`d stay in Rufaydah’s tent near his mosque. She was known for her skills in treating the wounded. The Prophet said, ‘let Sa`d stay in her tent so that I can visit him from a close distance.’“[3]

Jabir (r) reported the following incident:

The Prophet (s) used to stand on a tree trunk while he delivered his sermons. One day, a woman from the Ansar said to him, ‘O Messenger of Allah! One of my servants is a carpenter. Shall I get him to construct a pulpit for you?’ The Prophet (s) responded, ‘Yes’. She did, and the Prophet started using the pulpit. One Friday, while he was delivering a sermon standing on the pulpit, we heard a groaning sound coming out of the tree trunk. The Prophet (s) commented, ‘This trunk is weeping because it misses my standing on it while praising Allah.’”[4]

Bukhari and Muslim narrated after Aisha as well:

“Allah's Apostle invited me on a day of Eid to watch the Abyssinians who were playing in the mosque, displaying their skill with spears. He asked: ‘Would you like to watch?’ I answered: ‘Yes’. So I stood behind him and he lowered his shoulder so I can put my chin on it. I did and leaned with my face on his cheek and watched. Eventually, he asked me several times if I wanted to leave and I replied every time: ‘Please wait’. I was not interested in watching, really, but on that day I wanted women especially to know my status with him. Therefore, appreciate a young lady’s keenness to be playful.”[5]

We also cited earlier that Jabir Ibn Abdullah (r) reported, according to Bukhari:

“I attended Eid Prayer with the Messenger of Allah. He started with the prayer before the sermon, without an adhan or an iqamah. Then, he stood up, and while leaning on Bilal, commanded people to fear Allah and obey His commands. He started with the men and advised them, and then walked towards the women and advised them. He said: ‘Give charity’…Women started giving out their jewellery in charity, throwing their earrings and rings in Bilal's garment.[6]

It is to be noted, in the context of charity, that women today donate a great deal to mosques and their activities. It is unfair and un-Islamic that they donate for an organisation that does not give them equal access or proper service.

Abu Hurairah narrated that a black woman, who used to clean the mosque, passed away. When the Messenger (s) asked about her, they informed him that she had died. He then said, “Why did you not inform me when she died? Guide me to her grave.” So, he approached her grave and offered the funeral prayer for her there.[7]

Anas narrated that the Prophet (s) saw a spittle on one of the mosque’s walls, which made him quite angry. A woman from the Ansar stood up and walked to it, rubbed it off and put some perfume on the wall instead. The Prophet said: “How beautiful this is!”[8]

The above examples illustrate that women’s contribution to the social role of the Prophet’s Mosque was invaluable. It is of ultimate importance to revive this contribution today.

There is also ample evidence from the time of the Prophet (s) to allow i’tikaf (staying in the mosque) during Ramadan and in other months. Aisha (r) reported: “The Prophet (s) used to perform i`tikaf  during the last ten days of Ramadan until he passed away; his wives followed this practice after him.”[9]

Aisha also reported that the Prophet (s) used to practice i`tikaf in the last ten days of Ramadan and she used to pitch a tent for him; he would enter it after offering the fajr prayer. Hafsa (r) asked the permission of Aisha to pitch a tent for herself and Aisha allowed her. So, Hafsa pitched her tent. When Zainab bint Jahsh (r) saw it, she pitched another tent. In the morning the Prophet (s) noticed the tents. He commented, “Do you think that they intended to do righteousness by doing this?”[10] So, he abandoned i`tikaf in that month and observed it later in the month of Shawwal for ten days.[11]

Safiyah bint Huyai (r), wife of the Prophet (s) narrated that she visited the Messenger (s) while he was staying in the mosque to observe i`tikaf during the last ten nights of the month of Ramadan. She spoke to him for a while and then she got up to return home. The Prophet (s) got up to accompany her. When they reached the gate of the mosque, two Ansari men passed by. They greeted the Messenger and quickly went ahead. The Prophet said to them, “Do not be in a hurry, She is Safiyah bint Huyai.” They exclaimed, “Glory be to Allah.”[12]  During his lifetime, the Prophet (s) used to teach and instruct people in his mosque. His companions followed suit after he passed away. Although there are no reports of women, or men, systematically teaching in the mosque during the Prophetic era, there are tens of thousands of prophetic traditions that were transmitted by women over the early centuries. Female companions, especially the Prophet's wives, were amongst the highest authorities in the Prophet's Sunnah.

As a matter of fact, one of the features of scholarship following the Prophet's time was that male scholars of hadith used to learn hadith reports from female companions and their students.

In her excellent book, Women’s Role in Serving Hadith During the First Three Decades, Amal Qurdash named a number of female hadith narrators who taught great male hadith scholars including Fatimah, daughter of Imam Malik Ibn Anas, Khadijah Umm Muhammad, Zainab Bint Sulaiman al-Hashimiyah, Zainab Bint Sulaiman Ibn Abu Ja`far Al-Mansur, Umm Omar al-Thaqafiyah, Asma Bint Asad Ibn Al-Furat, Sulaiha Bint Abu Na`im, Samanah Bint Hamdan al-Anbaiyah and Abdah Bint Abdulrahman Ibn Mus`ab.

Qurdash counted the numbers of female companions from whom great imams narrated hadith as follows:

  • Al-Bukhari narrated hadith from 31 female companions in his Al-Jami.
  • Muslim narrated from 36 female companions in his Al-Jami.
  • Abu Dawud, in his Sunan, narrated from 75 female companions.
  • Al-Tirmidhi narrated from 46 female companions in his Sunan.
  • Al-Nasa'i narrated from 65 female companions in his Sunan.
  • And Ibn Majah, in his Sunan as well, narrated from 60 female companions.

She adds,

“It is only after the death of all the wives of the Prophet (s) that narrating hadith from women declined. The wives of the Prophet were frequently visited and referred to by female scholars. However, transmitting hadith by women continued, yet less frequently, until all junior companions, who lived long like Anas, Abdullah Ibn Abu Awfa and Ibn Omar, passed away.” [13]

This decrease, observed by the researcher, is actually associated with the decline of Islamic civilisation itself. It is also obviously connected with the practice of barring women from going to the mosque in many places.

Yet, the information we have about female Muslim scholars during that golden era reveals the important role that can be played by Muslim women when they engage in the fields of knowledge and education.

In a research of historic importance, Dr Mohammad Akram Nadwi compiled information on the female narrators of hadith (Al-Muhaddithat) and analysed their invaluable contribution to what we know about Islam today. The preface, the first volume of a 40-volume biographical dictionary, was published separately in English.[14] Detailed studies of this work are necessary to draw a full picture of female scholarship along the Islamic history and across the world. However, in relation to the question we are dealing with in this chapter, I will quote one paragraph below related to the role of women scholars as teachers:

“The women who had knowledge of the religion transmitted that knowledge to men as well as women. Indeed, given that the majority of students of hadith were men, we would expect the majority of the women’s students to have been men. Their numbers varied in different periods, but in some periods were very high: for example, al-Dhahabi in his account of Hafiz Abu Abdillah Muhammad ibn Mahmud ibn al-Najjar (d. 643) reports from Ibn al-Sa’ati that ‘[Ibn al-Najjar’s] teachers included 3000 men and 400 women.’ It should suffice as evidence of the authority of women in preserving and transmitting the Sunnah of God’s Messenger that some of the greatest of his Companions and, after them, some of the greatest imams and jurists in the history of Islamic scholarship relied on women teachers.[15]

To answer our question about women and teaching in the mosque, there is no proof that women should not be permitted to teach men and women in the mosque. To the contrary, history shows that women's role in Islamic scholarship, especially in the mosques, marked a thriving Islamic civilisation and flourishing scholarship in all fields of Islamic knowledge. The mosque should return to take a central role in the revival of the Islamic knowledge in our time. 

Then, wherever I meet Muslim students in universities, east or west, I am asked whether female students could be elected to the board or to the presidency of their “Muslim Student Associations”. It is a fact in today’s world that Muslim female students everywhere are generally more active than Muslim male students, and it is quite surprising that they are not allowed leadership positions in their student organisations simply because they are not male, and often based on some strange fatwa from mediocre “scholars”.

And wherever I meet with board members of mosque organisations, especially in the West, I hear complaints from members of the community that women are not allowed on the board only because they are females. Again, Muslim women are very active and carry the burden of representing Islam itself in the public sphere, in community leadership and in fundraising, more than Muslim men, especially in the West. However, in many mosque organizations, women are not allowed on the organisational board of the very community that they represent, lead, donate to, and serve!

One hadith narration is usually cited in this context, which has had quite a negative impact on the perception of women’s leadership in the Muslim mind over the centuries. It is the narration by Abu Bakrah Nufai’ Ibn Al-Harith Al-Thaqafi who said”

“Allah benefited me with something I heard from the Prophet (s) during the Battle of the Camel. I almost joined the People of the Camel to fight on their side, but then I remembered what I heard from the Prophet (s) when he was told that the Persians appointed their deceased king’s daughter as their queen. The Prophet said: ‘A people who appoint a woman leader will never be successful.’” [16]

This is, therefore, the final narration in this book that will require some critical analysis. The above narration, like all the other previous narrations, has a context that is crucial for a proper understanding of its meaning and assessment of its narrators. The context of this narration is twofold:

  1. The context in which the narrator himself, Abu Bakrah Al-Thaqafi, cited the narration.
  2. The context in which the Prophet himself (s) said what he said.

Abu Bakrah Al-Thaqafi was one of the “companions,” in the sense that he saw the Prophet (s). However, the story of him accusing Al-Mughirah of adultery and not producing three other witnesses is well known.[17] The Quran states: “And those who accuse chaste women, and do not produce four witnesses, flog them with eighty stripes, and reject their testimony forever, they indeed are the fasiqun (liars, rebellious, disobedient).” (24:4) Therefore, Omar the caliph, applied this punishment on Abu Bakrah when he refused to change his accusation and his testimony in courts was invalidated afterwards.

The context in which Abu Bakrah Al-Thaqafi recalled the hadith is interesting. He did not narrate the hadith anywhere or to anybody we know until approximately 25 years after he claimed to have heard it. The context was the Battle of the Camel, or the civil war that the companions fought in the aftermath of the assassination of the third caliph Othman in the Year 36 Hijri. Abu Bakrah Al-Thaqafi was not sure which side to take, as he said in his story, and decided finally to join the side of Ali Ibn Abu Talib (r) based on this hadith. He referred to the other side of Mu’awiyah Ibn Abu Sufyan and Aisha, the Mother of the Believers, as the “unsuccessful side” because of the leadership role that Aisha took in that battle. Aisha (r) actually led the army on her camel, which is the reason the whole battle was called the Battle of the Camel.

I believe that the political context of the narration is enough reason to reject it, whether Abu Bakrah Al-Thaqafi was a “trustworthy companion” or not. I witnessed numerous situations throughout my life where it is clear that scholars take political sides, especially if there is violence or war involved, which affect their sound judgement and perception of their rivals. 

However, even if Abu Bakrah Al-Thaqafi was a trustworthy narrator, as many scholars of hadith insisted, the context of the saying of the Prophet (s) is also worth reflecting upon. The story was the news of the assassination of another king of Persia and not finding any more males in the family to take over the throne. Therefore, the king’s daughter, who was a teenager, took over in a final attempt to save the kingdom that was already failing with internal disputes.

Note also that the previous King of Persia ripped the scroll that the Prophet (s) sent, and ordered two Yemenis to arrest the Prophet and bring him to Persia. When the two Yemenis arrived in Medina, the story goes that the Prophet (s) told them that Allah told him their king was killed that same morning. The Prophet, therefore, sent another message to the new king and invited him to embrace Islam. This is the context in which the Prophet (s) said that the Persians would never be successful under the leadership of their new queen – not because she is a female but because of the continuous killing of the kings and princes and their rejection of the Prophet’s message.

It is very important, from a methodological point of view, to put the hadith narrations within the context of the Quranic scripts that address the same issues. The Quran does present several women as “examples,” and the most obvious example in this context is the Queen of Sheba’s leadership, which was indeed a successful leadership. The Quran states (excerpts from: 27:29–44):

“When the Queen had read Solomon's letter, she said: ‘O you nobles! A truly distinguished letter has been conveyed unto me. Behold, it is from Solomon, and it says, “In the name of God, The Most Gracious, The Dispenser of Grace: God says: Exalt not yourselves against Me, but come unto Me in willing surrender!”’ She added: ‘O you nobles! Give me your opinion on the problem with which I am now faced; I would never make a weighty decision unless you are present with me.’… Cried she: ‘O my Sustainer! I have been sinning against myself, but now I have surrendered myself, with Solomon, unto the [i1] Sustainer of all the worlds!’”

The Queen of Sheba is the only good example of political leaders, others than prophets, that is given in the Quran! The Quran shows us details of her skills; skillfully consulting with her ministers and respecting their opinions, their reverence of her and their willingness to commit to war or peace under her leadership, her personal intelligence and knowledge of history and geography, and her integrity and honesty in accepting the truth wherever it is. The leadership of the Queen of Sheba is much more “Islamic” than the leadership of most Muslim male political leaders, past and present!



[1] Bukhari 3/37; and Muslim 2/798. The report quoted here is Muslim’s version.

[2] Bukhari, chapter on Expeditions, 416/8, and Muslim, chapter on Jihad, 160/5.

[3] Fat-h Al-Bary, 415/8.

[4] Abu Shaybah's Musannaf, 319/

[5] Bukhari 445 and Muslim 892.

[6] Bukhari (1462).

[7] Bukhari, chapter on Expeditions, 416/8, and Muslim, chapter on Jihad, 160/5.

[8] Ibn Khuzaimah 1229, Ibn Majah 762, Nasa’i 797.

[9] Bukhari, chapter on fasting 5/177

[10] Editor’s note: according to scholars, this question means, “Is the real purpose of pitching these tents devotion and worship or is it only a matter of wives’ rivalry and competition?”

[11] Bukhari, chapter on women i`tikaf, 3/48–49.

[12] Bukhari (3/49), chapter on houses of the Prophet’s wives, Muslim (4/1712); Al-Baihaqi in As-Sunan Al-Kubra (4/529); chapter on woman’s visiting her husband in i`tikaf; Ibn Khuzaimah (3/349) in his Sahih, Chapter on concession (rukhsah) for woman to visit her husband in i`tikaf; Ibn Hibban in his Sahih, chapter on permissibility of woman’s visiting her husband in i`tikaf during night; and others.

[13] Dawr al-Mar'ah fi khidmat al-Hadith fil Qurun ath-alathah al-awla (Women’s Role in Serving Hadith During the First Three Decades), Amala Qurdash bint al-Husain, Al-Ummah Book, Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, Researches and Studies Center, Qatar, Vol. 70, 1999.

[14] Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam (Oxford: Interface Publications, 2007).

[15] Al-Muhaddithat/138.

[16]Bukhari 4425, and Nasa’i 8/227 under the chapter titled: “Forbidding the rulership of women”.

[17] Al-Zahabi, Siyar A’lam al-Nubala, Beirut: Al-Risala, 2001, 3/5.

 [i1]Do we really need this entire excerpt?