- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — A female professor led an Islamic prayer service yesterday with men in the congregation, despite sharp criticism from Muslim religious leaders in the Middle East that it violated centuries of tradition.

Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led the service at Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal church in Manhattan.

Some Islamic scholars have said they were aware of a few other mixed-sex prayer meetings led by women, mostly in the West, but they are rare.

“The issue of gender equality is a very important one in Islam, and Muslims have unfortunately used highly restrictive interpretations of history to move backward,” Miss Wadud said before the service. “With this prayer service we are moving forward. This single act is symbolic of the possibilities within Islam.”

About 100 people attended the service, and the group appeared evenly divided between men and women. Most women wore the traditional Muslim head scarf and flowing robes.

The event was meant to draw attention to the inequality for women in Muslim spiritual life and Muslim life in general, said Asra Q. Nomani, an author and former Wall Street Journal reporter who is the lead organizer of the prayer.

“We are standing up for our rights as women in Islam. We will no longer accept the back door or the shadows,” Miss Nomani said. “At the end of the day, we’ll be leaders in the Muslim world.”

There was a brief outburst from some protesters outside the building at the start of the service, but they were kept from entering by a heavy police presence. One young U.S.-born, bearded activist, who only gave his name as Nussrah, said Miss Wadud was not representative of Muslims.

“She is tarnishing the whole Islamic faith,” he said.

Some critics have accused Miss Nomani of using the event to publicize a book she has written about women and Islam.

Three New York mosques had refused to host the service, Miss Nomani said. It was moved to Synod House after a site that earlier had been selected for the service, an art gallery, received a bomb threat.

The call to prayer was led by an American Muslim of Egyptian descent, Suehyla el-Attar, who spoke in accented Arabic and didn’t wear the traditional head scarf.

Organizers said the service wasn’t meant to protest Muslim traditions.

“It was always meant as a spiritual worship opportunity, and it’s doing so in an equal space for women and men,” said Ahmed Nassef, whose group Muslim WakeUp helped to organize the service.

“It’s not about telling other Muslims how they should worship,” Mr. Nassef said. “We just need to be open to new ideas.”

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