‘No Prohibition in Islam on Women Offering Namaz in Segregated Spaces in Mosques’: Muslim Personal Law Board Tells Supreme Court

Update: 2023-02-08 14:30 GMT

Islam does not prohibit women from entering mosques to offer namaz or congregational prayer, provided that there is no free intermixing of men and women in common areas, the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board informed the Supreme Court in an affidavit on Wednesday.

“The Board is consistent with its opinion in terms of Islamic texts that there is no prohibition on Muslim women entering mosques and offering namaz or congregational prayers. However, free intermixing of genders in the same line or common space is not in conformity with the position prescribed in Islam and that needs to be taken care of by segregation of space within the premises by the management committee, if possible.”

This affidavit was submitted by the board, which is a private body liaising with governments to ensure the protection and continued applicability of Muslim personal law or the Shariat, in response to a petition filed by a Pune-based Muslim woman and activist, Advocate Farha Anwar Hussain Shaikh. In her petition, Shaikh urged the top court to declare the prohibition of the entry of Muslim women into mosques as illegal. She argued that besides being violative of the constitutional rights of Muslim women, particularly, the right to a life with dignity, such an embargo was also not envisaged by the Quran. There was nothing in the Islamic holy scriptures that imposed a mandate of segregation of the sexes, she insisted. In fact, according to Shaikh, Prophet Muhammad specifically admonished men for keeping their wives from going to mosques to offer prayers. In support of her contention, she cited the example of Mecca and Medina, where female pilgrims apparently perform hajj and umrah rituals along with their male counterparts.

However, the Muslim personal law board has soundly rejected the petitioner’s contention that there was ‘free’ intermingling of men and women in either Mecca or Medina. The board has said, in no uncertain terms, that the segregation of sexes was a religious requirement envisioned by the holy scriptures, and could not be dispensed with. It also said that while women were not obligated to offer daily or weekly prayers in a congregation, unlike their male counterparts, management committees of existing mosques in India “are free to create such segregated spaces for women”, depending upon the available facility and “if the existing building or space permits such arrangements”. It has also appealed to the Muslim community at large to ‘keep in mind’ the consideration of constructing segregated spaces for women whenever new mosques are created.

Besides this, the respondent personal law board has also challenged the maintainability of the petition on the ground that the questions raised in the petition are “not in the background of state action”. “The board, being a body of experts, without any state powers, can only issue advisory opinion, based on Islamic principles. The board, and this court, for that matter, cannot enter into the arena of detailed arrangements of a religious place, which is a completely privately managed entity for religious practices.” The propriety of the Supreme Court examining and ‘correcting’ purely religious beliefs and practices, under the pretext of providing a remedy for alleged violations of the constitutional rights enshrined in Articles 14, 15, 21, 25, and 29, was also called into question. “The rights claimed do not merely concern the management of a religious place but also regulating the activities connected with religious practice. In essence, this court has been invited to interpret the religious beliefs and religious practices. It is not appropriate for this court to enter that area.”

What did the Muslim personal law board say about women entering mosques?

· Muslim women not prohibited from entering mosques to offer prayers

In light of Islamic religious texts, doctrines, and religious beliefs of the subscribers of the religion, the entry of women into mosques for offering prayers is permitted. “Thus, a Muslim woman is free to enter into a masjid for prayers. It is her option to exercise her right to avail such facilities as available for prayers in a masjid. The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board not want to comment on any contrary religious opinion to this effect,” the affidavit has clarified.

· Muslim women not obligated to offer daily or weekly prayers in a congregation

Unlike men, Muslim women are not obligated under Islamic law to offer prayers in a congregation five times in a day. Similarly, there is no religious mandate requiring Muslim women to offer weekly namaz in a congregation on Fridays, though such a mandate operates on their male counterparts. The affidavit has stated, “The Muslim woman is differently placed because, as per the doctrines of Islam, she is entitled to the same religious reward, i.e., sawab, for praying as per her option; either in a masjid or at home.”

· Free intermingling of men and women in mosques not permitted under Islam

No religious text under Islam authorises the intermingling of men and women in any masjid, the affidavit signed by one Mohammed Abdurrahim, one of the secretaries of the Islamic organisation, has categorically stated. To illustrate this, the affidavit has further stated, “The etiquettes of prayer, particularly no free intermixing of sexes, are adhered to willingly, strictly, and sincerely by all worshippers whether men or women. In fact, in Mecca, there are scores of masjids besides Masjid A1-Haram where, since the time of Prophet Muhammad no intermingling of the sexes is allowed. Almost every masjid has a separate entrance for men and women, the area for ablution and washroom also being separate.”

· Non-segregated rituals performed in Mecca distinct from regular prayers

The board has taken severe objection to the two-pronged submission made by Shaikh that since women are apparently allowed inside the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina, they should not be barred from entering mosques in general and that since women perform the rituals of hajj and umrah along with men in the two places, there should be no gender segregation in any mosque around the world.

The affidavit states, “The stand with respect to Medina is wholly incorrect and with respect to Mecca; it is thoroughly misleading.” It is clarified that Masjid AI-Haram in Mecca is differently placed in Islam and has certain exceptions while offering prayers called tawaf. In light of the “detailed and defined historical background of Mecca that cannot be carried out in an alternative site or place of worship”, certain rituals or acts of worship, namely, tawaf (circumambulation around Kaaba, which is a building at the centre of the mosque) and saii (travelling back and forth between two small hills of Safa and Marwa), are carried out by both men and women in non-segregated spaces at Masjid AI-Haram.

On the other hand, Masjid An-Nabawi in Medina has separate spaces or chambers for men and women inside the mosque, the board has pointed out. In the area surrounding Masjid An-Nabawi, designated and separate spaces are available for men and women worshippers with temporary barricades in place demarcating them. Moreover, in Masjid An-Nabawi, there is segregation even at the Rawdah (the area between the tomb of Prophet Muhammad and the pulpit where the imam delivers sermons), with different timings allotted for men and women.

The board has also stated that daily or weekly prayers to be performed in a masjid is distinct from the rituals performed by Muslims in Mecca. “The issue of men and women observing those practices together is to be seen with the intention that women are not excluded from a place of worship which is one and only on the planet rather than making a plea that this norm should be applied to innumerable masjids across the country and the world, contrary to the Islamic texts.”

Since no alternative arrangement was possible in Mecca, men and women perform tawaf together. However, the board has asserted, this did not mean there was ‘free’ intermixing of sexes during the rituals. “There are certain regulations and principles always in place during these rituals or ceremonies primarily as the manifestation of the Islamic faith and secondly to maintain the sanctity of the religious practices and sites. Both men and women are advised to be mindful of each other by maintaining a respectful distance from the opposite sex while performing tawaf. Moreover, as soon as the prayer begins, movement around the Kaaba and likewise around the mountains of Safa and Marwah come to a standstill and the men and women organise themselves in groups for the prayer with segregation.”

Advocate MR Shamshad represents the AIMPLB in this case.

Case Title

Farha Anwar Hussain Shaikh v. Union of India & Ors. | Writ Petition (Civil) No. 421 of 2020


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