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Woman Leads Muslim Prayers in New York, Sparking Worldwide Controversy


Controversy erupted in New York Friday and spread across the Islamic world as a woman Islam scholar led Friday prayer services. The service opened with a call to prayer by another woman whose grandfather once led the call to prayer in Cairo, Egypt.

Organizers say it is the first time on record that a woman has led the Muslim Friday prayer service. Men and women generally sit separately during Muslim services and the role of prayer leader has been reserved for men, although some Islamic scholars say they are aware of a few other mixed-gender services led by women.

Amina Wadud has now taken a step to change Islamic traditions. An Islamic scholar at Virginia Commonwealth University, Professor Wadud describes herself as a lonely scholar who took this most public of steps to symbolize the possibilities for gender equality within Islam. She led the mixed-gender service at a building on the grounds of the episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine after the original venue was changed following threats.

Several religious leaders in the Middle East have criticized the event, saying it violates centuries of tradition. But in her sermon, Professor Wadud said it is a violation of god's integrity to try to reduce half of God's creation.

"Allah is always present whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we agree with it or not, whether it is convenient for us or not, women and men both are necessary and essential to Allah's plan for creation and women and men both have the capacity to reach more moral excellence," she said.

About one-third of the approximatively 100 congregants were men. Among them, a graduate student named Enis from Turkey called the service an historic event. "This is the beginning of an end to male domination in religious authority," he said.

Participants came from as far away and Kentucky and Michigan. The location of the service was kept secret until the last moment because of threats and dozens of police guarded the area, keeping about two dozen protesters at bay. The protest groups included men and women.

"They are trying to bring change in the Koran," said one male protester. "If Islam goes with what you feel, then it is not a religion, it is an option. We are against her because she is trying to offend 1.4 billion Muslims and as a Muslim it is our duty to forbid what we see as evil."

"I am against what she is saying because it has never been allowed, since the 14th century until now all the religious scholars never allow a woman to be an Iman," said a woman protester.

Some observers say the event represents a split between the thinking of older Muslims and a new generation born and bred in the United States. Others say the event was to help publicize a new book written by one of the organizers. Either way, the small service has ignited a debate on the role of women in Islam throughout the Muslim world, thanks in large part to the Internet.