In looking at the question of should Muslim women pray behind men, I’ve arrived at a simple conclusion: Do what you want. Any other answer that doesn’t factor in personal freedom and choice runs the risk of herding us toward Islamist fundamentalism.
Islamist fundamentalism is defined, in part, as the straining of Islam through a strict filter. However, it’s also true that the opposite of fundamentalism is still a form of fundamentalism.
Let me explain.
A recent discussion in a Facebook group page for secular Muslim women looked at a video produced by well-known and well-liked vlogger Khalid Al Ameri. Alongside his wife Salama, Ameri often produces these videos as a positive representation of Arab culture and Muslim values.
One of these videos — “Are we bad Muslims?” — looks at some of the criticism the Al Ameris receive. Among the criticisms was a belligerent third-party voice complaining that Salama doesn’t pray behind Khalid. Khalid calmly responds to this by saying that she was behind him.
She was and she wasn’t. Salama was inches behind her husband but also next to him, which I saw as reflective of their harmonious and intimate relationship as husband and wife. There is a closeness and ease between them that has earned them millions of followers. There is also a deep equity within their marriage that doesn’t lose its balance with Salama sitting three inches behind her husband.
Clearly, the fundamentalists have an issue that the strict standard is not met. However, the extreme liberal branch of Muslims using a new filter of culture and politics will have their own standard:
- There must be no separation of gender
- Women can pray equally alongside men
- Women should lead men in prayer
Muslim women who have charged the way in leading mosques or Islamic prayer have highlighted leading a prayer service as a win. Of course it’s a win in gender equality, but it should not be mandated as a new standard to demonstrate we’re not primitive.
It is important to remember that Islam fails miserably when it is treated as a monolith. And historically, extreme interpretations construct a monolith faith. An extreme interpretation in the other direction will do the same.
Extremist factions in Islam arose, in part, out of a denial that Islam and its practice is diversified; it was designed to be diversified. The politically-driven Leftist opposition to fundamentalism (that must, of course, be checked) also runs the risk of being very narrow in its own insistence that the only way to practice ‘proper’ Islam is to funnel it through pre-screened liberal values that fit into Western notions of equality.
In other words, they cry that only those liberal values can be tolerated. That swing (in the completely other direction) marginalizes conservative Muslims and traditionalists, as well as women like me — women who balance between modernity and feminism but also in many ways are still very traditional.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all Islam, and there shouldn’t be. If Salama and Khalid Al Ameri are happy worshiping as they do — and they aren’t hurting anyone — what’s it to anyone else? If I choose not to lead a mixed-gender prayer because I wouldn’t be comfortable, does that disqualify me as a feminist? I don’t think so.
The rigidity with which we structure our filters is a problem, leaving us vulnerable to developing our own fundamentalist views camouflaged under buzz words like “freedom” and “equality.”
Lastly, within the back and forth with secular Muslim women on this subject, there was also the criticism the Al Ameris receive for not taking about “real problems” within the Islamic world.
I understand the sentiment behind that criticism, but does everyone have to use their platform to produce gut-wrenching and provocative pieces? I don’t think so. The way the Al Ameris have produced these videos — heartfelt and light — has its own value. Everyone brings their own piece to the conversation, and the Al Ameris do so gently with broad appeal.