Adapted from a lecture delivered at Cheadle Mosque (Manchester, UK) in February 2018.
The Prophet (ﷺ) clearly commanded us to ensure that we do not prevent women from coming to the masjid. However the limited attendance of women (and men) in today’s masajid (mosques) is actually the sign of a deeper and more fundamental problem – a problem we must all confront.
Since the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) in Yathrib, the mosque (sing. masjid, pl. masājid) has held a focal position – not only as a place of prayer, but as a central institution for Muslim community life, channeling moral unity, and managing public affairs.
Muslims are called to the masjid indiscriminately, five times each day. Many masājid around the Muslim world today, including the largest masājid, have continually granted access to Muslims of either gender, and have ample space for both men and women.
The vast majority of masājid in particular Western countries today are also reported to have access for women. For example, a survey of masājid in the USA suggests that researchers encountered no mosques in the USA that denied entry to women. The report went further and graded 90% of the mosques that they surveyed to be at least ‘fair‘ in being ‘women-friendly‘, based upon factors such as the quality of the women’s facilities, community programs, and governing board participation. In the UK, three quarters of masājid are reported to have, to varying degrees, access or facilities for women.
While there seems to be a ubiquity of prayer space for women, a minority of masājid, for various reasons, do not provide access to women. In these situations, sisters have sometimes had to find alternative, unorthodox places to pray unless they were at home (car parks, restaurants, even shopping centres). Where access is provided, these areas are sometimes prone to neglect by masjid maintenance, sparse attendance of female worshippers, or both. A fundamental flaw exists. It is not, however, a flaw in the way that we see gender – rather, it is a flaw in the way that we, as a community, have come to view the masjid itself.
The physical reconstruction of the Muslim urban landscape, which ousted the masjid as the capital institute, continues to be felt as a vestige of colonial occupation. It was this displacement of the masjid, and not anti-women agendas, that paved the way for the secularisation of Muslim urban life and led to a decrease in Muslim women’s presence at the masjid.
This secularisation of the masjid means that many sisters have made their homes their place of prayer. Since the masjid, in this view, is just considered a place of prayer, and since women can pray at home, sisters ask themselves why they should go to another building when they can simply pray at home? This mistaken view, however, is due to our viewing the masjid as only being a place of prayer and nothing more.
So coloured is the Muslim view of the masjid, that we have come to busy ourselves with measuring the masjid only in light of access for prayer. In viewing the masjid as being no more than a giant prayer mat, we have denied ourselves the opportunity to use the masjid as our Prophet (ﷺ) practiced – as a centre for the public life of Muslims – both men and women.
The Prophetic legacy: the masjid and public life
When the Prophet (ﷺ) arrived at Yathrib, his first order of business was to establish the heart of the Muslim community, the masjid, and to re-create Yathrib as the first Islamic polity for the Muslim Ummah: al-Madinah (the City).
The functions of the masjid
The Prophet (ﷺ)’s masjid was not just a place of prayer for both men and women, but one that served as a place for the homeless and hungry, with the needy expecting and receiving help as guests of Muslims. It served the wounded, with a tent set up in the masjid to care for the injured. It also served as a legal centre for court hearings and judgements, and even a venue for conducting the affairs of the Islamic government, such as managing the treasury and strategic planning. It was a place where the companions of the Prophet (ﷺ) would play games, where the Prophet (ﷺ) would talk with them, and where the poorest of his companions would actually reside in designated quarters. It served as the town hall and public square combined, with the call to prayer (adhān) summoning Muslims to the masjid, be led in prayer, receive important or urgent community sermons and news from the Prophet (ﷺ), or to gather and consult the people in order to reach consensus on particular issues.
To facilitate all of these activities, masājid went on to maintain large, outdoor courtyards as well as indoor spaces, so that they could accommodate people in large numbers, and allow people to meet there, pray and discuss matters of import. In fact, the majority of the space in a masjid was frequently the courtyard, or ṣaḥn (Arabic: صحن).
The Prophet’s masjid, in other words, was the public square, and more.
Muslim urban design – centring the community around the masjid
The landscape of most Muslim cities or towns in early Islam, and even later, reflected the importance of Muslims utilising spaces to interact and engage one another for the sake of Allah. It can be observed that many of the cities and towns were structured such that the masjid, specifically the jami’ah masjid (i.e. the one for the obligatory jamā’ah Friday prayer), was typically the central architectural feature. In some cases, cities maximised geometric efficiency and symmetry through a circular design, with the streets sprung out from the masjid like the spokes of a wheel. In the periphery of the masjid one would find the city’s markets, and administrative buildings; everything was around the jami’ah masjid and was easy to access en route to the masjid. As towns expanded and became larger, smaller clusters (or city quarters) would form in the same pattern centred around local mosques, like a fractal pattern. Some historians have described this as being how the branches of a tree spread out.
Medieval European cities compared
The centrality of the masjid to Muslim life made Muslim urban planning somewhat different from medieval European cities, which were inherited from a Greco-Roman background. For example, in Rome and Ancient Greece, cities were based around public squares, called an ‘agora’ or a ‘forum’, where it was expected that free male citizens could meet for public festivals or discussion. This later became the medieval European ‘town square’ that has very much continued to be associated with European cities. The Romans and Greeks did not think of temples or, later, churches as places where people should congregate for anything other than ritual prayer. European cities, as the inheritors of Latin and Greek culture, formed themselves on this basis. The centre of each city would have a public square, with attached market places, and then the church. Most notable is that the church and the public square were physically separate, reflecting medieval Europe’s twin power structures, which after the decline in the power of the Catholic church, presaged the separation of religion and state altogether.
Unlike European cities where homes were small and clustered around a large shared common public square in the middle of a city, Muslim cities were centred around a large jami’ah masjid in the centre of the city, which would form the place of congregation. In Muslim cities, the jami’ah masjid was the “public square”.
Since the masjid was central to the Muslim community’s public life, as well as worship, what was the Prophet’s (ﷺ) teaching regarding women’s access to masajid?
The Prophetic teachings on women’s attendance at the mosque
There are many Prophetic narrations, as well as records of Muslim public life in early Madinah, which explain the Prophet’s (ﷺ) teachings on women’s access to masajid in detail.
Do not prevent your women from attending the masjid
Women were known to have prayed in the Prophet’s (ﷺ) masjid during his lifetime, and afterwards. We come across various accounts confirming this. By way of one example, Ā’isha, the wife of the Prophet (ﷺ), said,
“Allāh’s Apostle used to offer the fajr [morning] prayer when it was still dark and the believing women used to return [after finishing their prayer] and nobody could recognise them owing to darkness, or they could not recognise one another”.
The Prophet (ﷺ) is also narrated to have instructed,
“Do not forbid the female servants of Allah from the masājid of Allah.” (Muslim, 886)
“If one of your women asks permission from you [to go to the masjid] then do not prevent them” (Bukhari, Vol I, Hadith 832)
“Do not prevent your women from visiting the mosques; but their houses are better for them (for praying).” (Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 567) (See also No. 570)
Does “It is better to pray in the house” mean that women can be prevented from attending the masjid?
The answer is ‘no’, as evidenced by the first part of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) saying, “Do not forbid the female servants of Allah from the masājid of Allah”. In Islam, it is not obligatory for a woman to pray in the masjid for the Friday jumu’ah (congregational) prayers. Nevertheless, the Prophet (ﷺ) clearly commanded that Muslim women not be prevented from attending if they so wish to.
It is narrated that the Prophet (ﷺ) stated,
“The best place for a woman to pray (salah) is in the innermost part of her home” (Musnad Ahmad)
The fact that it is better to pray in the house does not mean there is no merit, even if it is thought to be less, for praying in the masjid. In other words, ‘better’ does not mean there is no merit for a woman praying in a masjid.
Moreover, this is similar to the following sayings of the Prophet (ﷺ), in which he did not address women. On the authority of Zaid ibn Thabit, the Prophet (ﷺ) said,
“A person’s prayer (salah) in his house is better than his prayer [salah] in my masjid, except for the obligatory prayer [fardh Salah]” (Abu Dawud)
Zaid ibn Thabit, also narrated the Prophet (ﷺ) to have said,
“I know how keen you are to pray behind me. O people, pray in your houses, for the best of prayer is a man’s prayer in his house, apart from the prescribed prayers.” (Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim)
According to Ibn ‘Umar, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said,
“Perform some of your prayers in your houses and do not make them graves.” (Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim)
Ka’b bin Ujrah narrated,
“The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) prayed Maghrib in the masjid of Banu ‘Abdul-Ashhal, and when he finished praying some people stood up and offered supererogatory (Nafl) prayers. The Prophet (ﷺ) said: ‘You should offer this prayer in your houses.'” (Sunan Nasa’i)
When it comes to non-obligatory prayers, men and women are similarly recommended by the Prophet (ﷺ) that it is better to pray in their own houses rather than in the masājid. No one would claim that the narration would therefore mean that men cannot pray, or should be forbidden from praying, the non-obligatory prayers in the masājid. Similarly, it is not forbidden for women to pray in the masjid also.
Some classical Islamic scholars have reasoned that women going to pray in the masjid receive the same reward as men do due to the hardship or exertion of going out to go to the masjid, which raises an interesting query: if a woman stays home to pray, and it is advised that this is better for her, does she receive a better reward than a man going out to pray in the masjid?
Non-obligatory attendance is a mercy on women
When it comes to ritual worship, women have many concessions that a man does not have. For example, she is every month exempt from the five daily prayers and fasting, during her monthly cycle, pregnancy or other circumstances until her health permits. This is out of compassion and consideration for women’s physiological changes and needs. She is also not required to pray in the masjid, even for the Friday prayers (which is obligatory for men). This exemption for women, who may often be responsible for children, is a mercy. Just think of the undue difficulty or burden on society if every single member of society were compelled to go to the masjid every week (or day).
The Prophet (ﷺ) always cared for the potential hardships faced by many of the women attending the congregational prayers he (ﷺ) was leading. It is narrated that he (ﷺ) said: “I start the prayer intending to make it long, then I hear a child crying, so I make it brief lest I cause hardship to his mother.” (Narrated by Abu Dawood.)
The Prophet (ﷺ) instructed both men and women on how to prepare for the Friday prayer
According to Ibn ‘Umar, the Prophet (ﷺ) said,
“Whoever comes to jumu‘ah, man or woman, let him do ghusl [i.e. a full body ablution], and whoever does not come to it, man or woman, does not have to do ghusl.” (al-Bayhaqi)
Were women not allowed to perform the Friday jumu’ah prayer, or discouraged from doing so, we would not have seen women explicitly included in the above guidance for the ablutions required by all participants intending to pray the jumu’ah prayer.
Occasions when women’s attendance at the masjid was recommended by the Prophet (ﷺ)
Twice a year, during the two Muslim festivals of Eid-ul-fitr and Eid-ul-adha, Muslim women are actually recommended to attend the masjid and the Eid prayers. Even women who are not performing the ritual prayer due to their monthly cycle are still recommended to attend and witness the gathering of Muslims at the masjid.
According to a report, Umm ‘Atiyyah narrated that the Prophet (ﷺ) said,
‘Let the adolescent girls, women in seclusion and menstruating women come out to attend Eid and witness the gathering of the Muslims, but let the menstruating women avoid the prayer place.’” (Narrated by al-Bukhari)
The “If the Prophet (ﷺ) had seen…” argument
First and foremost, there are conditions for going to the masjid, including to go as a servant of Allāh (swt) and not for any corrupt purpose, whether vanity or conspiracy. This means to go in a state that Allah has prescribed: with humility and only for His Sake.
After the passing of the Prophet (ﷺ), however, many accounts suggested that the nature of interaction between some men and some women in early Muslim society at the masājid became a cause of suspicion, corruption, or fitnah, leading the Prophet’s (ﷺ) wife Ā’isha (ra) to comment,
“If the Messenger of God had lived to see what women have innovated, he would have forbidden them from visiting the masjid.”
Some scholars cite Ā’isha’s (ra) statement in their reasoning for either the male family member or authorities prohibiting women from attending the masājid, noting that because some people have ‘changed’, the prohibition of the Prophet (ﷺ) against preventing women going to the mosque no longer applied, or at least not without extensive conditions.
Interestingly and familiarly, some scholars claimed that the corruption of people’s behaviour included that women “adorn themselves to go out more than they do when they are at home […] so they are forbidden completely”  and, whilst it was preferable for women to go the masjid for the evening and early morning prayer (whilst it was still dark), these scholars stated that, even if unadorned, issues of public order could possibly preclude women from going to the masjid even at night “because in our time evil-doers mostly spread abroad and accost at night”.
But Allah (swt) certainly knew…
Other scholars however, including the famous classical scholar Ibn Hazm al Andalusi, point out that even if the Prophet (ﷺ) did not see what occurred after his life, Allāh certainly knows the past, present and future, and He did not reveal to the Prophet (ﷺ) that he should forbid women from going to the masājid. They also point out that the Prophet (ﷺ) dealt with cases of fornication and adultery during his time, but he did not forbid women from going to the masājid. Furthermore, arguing that women should not go to the masājid due to issues of potential corruption, or fitnah, is the same as arguing that they women not leave their homes at all, and should be prohibited from all public spaces, and we know that women were not prevented from going about their necessary activities. Moreover, Ā’isha (ra) did not even herself explicitly forbid, or attempt to forbid, women from going to the masājid.
In fact, even with certain classical scholars, notably Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, who believed that women should generally not be going out into the streets without their husband’s permission, the masjid was the only exemption to this rule. 
Moreover, if misconduct between men and women is an issue, why would we not aim to address this, rather than close off the centres that may provide guidance and instruction on these matters? Would we also close hospitals to people seeking cures for their illnesses because we fear the illnesses brought by others? No.
In fact, it is reported that even companions of the Prophet (ﷺ) rejected such an argument. Mujahid ibn `Umar narrated,
“The Prophet (ﷺ) said: `Do not prevent the women from going to the mosque at night’ One of the sons of ibn`Umar said [to his father], `We will not let them go out because it will give rise to deviation and suspicion.’ Ibn `Umar rebuked him and said, `I tell you that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said such-and-such and you say, “No, we will not let them”!'” (Sahih Muslim)
Architectural adaptations of the masājid to facilitate Muslim women’s attendance and prevent controversy
Historical records show that many were concerned with the misconduct, vanity, and distraction between men and women just after the lifetime of the Prophet (ﷺ), just like many Muslims are concerned today. Instead of simply resigning themselves to social corruptions, however, Muslims ingeniously and creatively invented and developed new architecture for the masājid to help shut out avenues for wrongdoing, by creating separate spaces for women in the masājid, and therefore allowing men and women to continue to attend the masājid while minimising the potential for misconduct, vanity or distraction in these sacred spaces.
In order to deal with the issue of fitnah that arose after the Prophet’s (ﷺ) time – and because continuing the attendance of women to the masjid was deemed important – architects redesigned and renovated the masājid for the express purpose of continuing to allow women to access the masjid. Muslim architects were ordered by the leaders of the ummah to build masājid with separate spaces for men and women.
Whilst constructing physically separated women’s prayer spaces is not something that was apparent during the Prophet’s (ﷺ) time, women during the Prophet’s (ﷺ) time were reported to have prayed in rows behind – and notably separate – from the men in the masjid, without any reported exception.
It was also reported that during the Caliphate of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) companion, Umar (ra), Umar (ra) granted women a separate entrance and exit from mosques, which he forbade men from using, and gave women separate areas for performing their ablution.
Umar is narrated to have commanded, “[Men,] do not enter the masjids through the women’s door”.
Muslim leaders and architects, seeking to continue this principle, designed and expanded the masājid to make this more efficient and less prone to personal problems. The early historian of Madinah, Ibn Zabāla, described the expansion of the masjid as ordered by the Caliph al-Mahdi in 161H, referring to the expanded areas as the “women’s arcades”. Not long after, in 176H, an expansion was also noted to have occurred in al-Andalus, with the Spanish Umayyad Caliph Hisham I building arcades specifically for women’s prayer on the upper levels of the Great Masjid of Cordoba. There were numerous other architectural or design developments to the Cordoba Masjid over time to accommodate female attendees, even though their numbers were less than men’s.
Similar separations could be seen in North African masājid, including the two main masājid of Fes, known as al-Qarawiyyin and al-Andalus. They had designated women’s spaces, with separate designated women’s entrances.
Such architectural developments allowed Muslims to uphold the commandment of the Prophet (ﷺ), whilst addressing the concerns of the attendees. The point of technological development should be to make Islam easier, whilst strengthening Islam’s values in Muslim society and making more time for us to develop our Islamic knowledge and character. This is particularly understandable in our current scenario, where in public life men and women share many other public spaces.
Therefore, avoiding unnecessary free mixing inside the masjid is easily feasible – even if it is just a partition in the middle of a mosque’s main hall – rather than simply attempting to prevent attendance to the masjid altogether.
Giving women the option to pray in the masjid gives women the option for greater reward
If women are denied access to the masājid, this takes away the alternative to praying in the house by making praying in the house the only choice. How can women obtain the increased reward for choosing to pray at home if she is unable to voluntarily do otherwise?
For clarity, this scenario is different from one in which a person wishes to commit a forbidden (haram) public action that affects others. In this case, society should not facilitate or allow individuals to compromise public morals.
In the case of prayer, however, how can a Muslim be rewarded for choosing the better between two permissible (halal) options, in a choice they did not get to make?
Women’s attendance at the masjid was the historical norm
We learn through early and later historical narrations that, per Islamic legal rulings (that men should not forbid attendance – discussed above) there were numerous cases of women’s presence in the masājid as a norm with a long history of practice from the time of the Prophet (ﷺ).
Women’s access to the masjid for their legal affairs
The masjid was not just a place of prayer, but was also a place of access to legal rulings and opinions. Having a judge inside the masjid who was approachable and accessible to the people meant easy and discreet access to legal redress – something that both men and women benefited from and sought. Imam Malik is reported to have recommended that a judge hold court in the masājid in part because this would make him better accessible to women (and even non-Muslims). Indeed, early Iraqi judges held court in the masājid where women appeared as litigants and witnesses. The same seeking out of legal advice at the masjid also occurred in al-Andalus. For example, in Malaga, the distinguished scholar Ibn al-Fakhkhar al-Judhami is said to have spent his afternoons leaning against an arch and teaching, and women would approach from behind to ask him for fatwas.
Women’s access to the masjid for public holidays and festivities
As mentioned above, the exhortation of the Prophet (ﷺ) for women to attend the mosque during the two Eid festivals of the year created a tradition where women from across Muslim cities attended and prayed at the central masjid in pursuit of piety and the fulfilment of the Prophet’s recommendation (ﷺ).
Women’s access to the masjid for daily or weekly worship
As for prayer, there are many historical records of women praying in the masājid throughout Islamic history. In Iraq, for example, the companion of the Prophet (ﷺ), Ibn Mas’ud himself regulates women’s prayer in the masājid, and does not prohibit it. For example, he advises women to pray 4 rakat [prostrations] if they pray in their homes on Friday, and to pray 2 rakat if they pray in the masjid.
Al-Tabari even recounts during a particular politically tumultuous period in Kufa, when men were being taken captive and imprisoned in the palace, that women would often claim to be heading to the masjid to pray but would use this is a pretext to actually go and smuggle food into the palace, suggesting that going to the masjid was very much a normal, unsuspicious activity for women.
Ibn Al-Jawzi, relates an account by Abu Khalda, that he never saw any man or woman with greater stamina for standing in prayer than famous pious woman of Basra, Umm Hayyan al-Salmiya, describing her as follows,
“she would stand in the neighbourhood masjid as if she were a palm tree blown to the left and right by the wind”.
A famous English traveller and historian, Julia Pardoe wrote in the mid-1830’s regarding Ottoman Turkey,
“A group of ulema were engaged in prayer as we entered […] and almost in the centre of the floor knelt a party of women similarly engaged, while a couple of children, who had accompanied them, were chasing each other over the rich carpets […] An erroneous impression has been obtained in Europe that females do not attend, or rather, I should perhaps say, are not permitted to enter, the mosques; this, as I have just shown, is by no means the case”.
What the historical record shows is that women were frequently attendees at the masājid for the purposes of learning, praying, celebrating the Eid festivals, seeking legal advice, redress, or even serving as witnesses in legal cases there.
Muslim urban design and Muslim women’s social and public life
When the people were not at the masjid, studying, or working in manufacturing, smiths, bureaucrats or as vendors, people generally kept to their family homes – and Muslim city planning was designed specifically to prioritise space for it.
Muslim cities were built with the streets being typically very narrow, in order to maximise living space for people’s homes in order that family life was given more space. These homes often had wide open courtyards where families and, importantly, women would have privacy within a large, open space and where they could often visit one another in these internal ‘public squares’.
The Muslim Women’s Network of Courtyards and Terraces
Muslim cities became networks of hundreds of private courtyards and terraces. Instead of one open air public square, like in medieval European cities, Muslim cities had hundreds of open air mini-“public squares” at the centre of their houses. These courtyards, as one architectural historian noted, became the “theater of work and women’s leisure, for children’s games […] Some houses had water fountains here, with water coming from the aqueducts that tapped the sources in the hills […] Entrance to the court was indirect and achieved through several labyrinthine lobbies“.
The upper terraces of houses in a Muslim city became the domain of women, and were interconnected between other houses to such a degree, it quite literally put women above men in the city:
“Like the court, the terrace was an essential part of the house where women spent many hours of the day, working and socializing with their neighbors. The dense configuration of the casbah made it possible to pass from one terrace to the other and visit other homes without having to use the streets. The rooftops of the casbah functioned as an alternative public realm that extended over the entire city. In contrast to the interiorized court and the relatively contrived rooms, the rooftops opened up to the city, to the sea, to the world. With the appropriation of this space by the women of Algiers, the casbah became divided horizontally into two realms: on the top, occupying the expanse of the entire city, were the women; at the bottom, the streets belonged to the men.”
We therefore find in Europe the opposite of what we saw in Islamic architecture. In medieval Europe, the streets are wide, but space for residential buildings is tight and at a premium. The private courtyard became a pipe dream only for the rich and wealthy in Europe. While in Muslim cities, cities were deliberately planned with narrow streets, to maximise the ability for people to live in houses with maximum space and their own private courtyards for family life and family is, of course, considered the basic unit of Muslim society.
So it is clear when we look at classical Muslim urban design that the social and public life of Muslim women was catered for to a degree unmatched by modern city designs. This meant that even when women were not at a masjid they still had access to a vibrant, easy and accessible social and public life.
De-centralising the masjid – the colonial separation of masjid from the public square
Following the colonial era, many Muslims today have demonstrated that they have been influenced by Western outlooks on private and public life. The colonisation of many Muslim lands led to significant changes to Muslim perspectives, and this came about in a number of ways.
In Algiers during French colonialism, for example, French urban planners replanned the city to strip the function of the masjid as a community centre, so that people would conduct their daily affairs without easy access to a central masjid. In Algiers, for example, the Kechauoua and El Barani masjids were amongst those converted to non-Islamic functions such as military barracks, secular buildings, and even churches.
The French began new, large, urban housing projects, based on the European model for housing, calling this the “grandes ensembles”. This type of strategy left such countries today to have cities where masājid are not the centres of urban life, but simply buildings that are ancillary to the more secular spaces that arose after colonialism.
Government administration buildings, schools, universities, courts and other public facilities were built at further distances from the masjid (whereas previously they were attached or surrounding the masjid), and huge public squares were built that served to distance and divert people from naturally being within easy reach of a masjid during their daily business and affairs.
The effect of colonialism’s redesign of Muslim cities was multi-fold. However, most relevant to our current discussion is that the masjid ceased to be the centre of Muslim community and political life. Concomitant to this was the transformation of the masjid from a community centre to its relegation as merely a single-purpose building – a place of prayer.
Since women were not obliged to perform their prayers at the masjid, and since masājid under colonial powers no longer provided legal or stated-funded educational services, and combined with the rise of monastic-like retreats for women and men seeking spiritual fulfilment away from the outside world – this led to an increasing communal belief that women had no longer any interest or good reason to continue attending the mosque, and therefore the attendance of women at mosques decreased (though not completely).
Reviving the Prophet’s (ﷺ) legacy for Muslim public life
Do not let the issue become one solely of prayer
In the Muslim world, the mosque is viewed as simply a large (and ornate) “prayer mat” and, where the adhan is allowed publicly, a prayer alarm clock.
Until Muslims revive and return the Prophet’s legacy of the centrality of the mosque to Muslim public life, making it a place for seeking Islamic legal redress, learning, public classes, open discussion, and even a place to socialise, the mosque will continue to be reduced to simply a place to pray that is out of the way for most Muslims during their daily lives. And for that reason, since weekly mosque attendance for worship will never be obligatory upon women as it is upon men, women’s attendance at mosques will continue to be seen as not being a priority.
However, the question is not just about access to the masjid. Whilst we may not be able to replicate the architectural centrality of the masājid in our towns and cities where Muslims are a minority, Muslims nevertheless need to consider how we can structure our communities so that the masjid is returned to the important and holistic function that it had during the time of the Prophet (ﷺ) and for centuries after.
The right to attend the masjid is a mercy on women
During my lecture on this subject at Cheadle Masjid one brother asked, “Since it is not obligatory for women to attend the masjid, what is it that makes them want to go to the masjid?”
We should remember that there is wisdom behind the Prophet’s (ﷺ) prohibition of preventing women from going to the masjid. In this day and age when even Muslim men do not view the masjid as anything more than a prayer space, few people understand the large number of good reasons women have to want to frequent the masjid, even where it is not for legal assistance or formal learning. Not all women have supportive Muslim families, and for some, Muslim families at all – like many of our newly reverted sisters, who do not have a Muslim family among whom to socialise and learn from. For such sisters, the masjid becomes indispensable as a place to learn, seek advice, and develop her own Muslim support network.
For many sisters, the masjid is a place of reprieve, a spiritual renewal, a mutual uplifting amongst fellow sisters, learning, teaching, discussing, meeting new sisters, and building solid, social networks for collaborating in good work.
Muslim women are, due to more overt clothing requirements, often the most visible manifestation of the Muslim community, and therefore subject to a great deal of stigma and societal pressure. Which spaces in society can our women turn to that offer them acceptance, a sense of community, and a chance to be supported in personal development in the company of their fellow believers, strengthening them and helping them with mutual support and reminders? Families cannot always provide the religious nourishment and guidance free from ignorance, and the checks and balances against cultural prejudice. This is especially so for newly reverted Muslims, who can be left completely isolated or subject to unfiltered cultural influences whether from the East or the West.
Some may ask, “When our ‘public square’ today is social media, where it is easier to be discreet, why do women want or need access to the masjid?” This is no different to asking, ‘why travel when you can use Google earth?‘ Unlike the internet, which is isolating, togetherness at the masjid, and praying in congregation, brings energy and humility to person’s taqwa.
Notably, the classical scholar Ibn al-Hajj acknowledged that even some religious scholars sometimes preferred pious seclusion and not to go to the mosque, and that the desire to go was something that needed to be cultivated. He noted that the desire to go to the masjid was not something that should be taken for granted even with the most pious. Perhaps many men (along with women), therefore, also need to cultivate this desire to want to be present and contribute at the masjid.
It is strange to think that women, in the UK, often have more accessible places to pray in multi-faith prayer rooms (in our universities, workplaces, shopping centres, and even airports) than in a minority of our own masājid.
In the end with have to ask ourselves, what would we prefer for our sisters, to congregate in the masjid and be elevated to be better Muslims, supported and united with each other, or congregate (in smaller circles) at the shopping centres, restaurants, or coffee shops, in environments of a less God focused nature?
Engaging with masjid committees
As mentioned already, most Muslims in the UK (and USA) today have access to masājid that have facilities for all to use. However, this discussion is partly about addressing those masājid that may not have considered these matters. Familiarising ourselves with the source texts in order only to individually berate, lambast, or threaten masjid committees with government and media intervention is unwise, divisive and counter-productive.
Instead, Muslims should adopt wisdom and form committees of brothers and sisters who can engage with the masjid committees and our elders, respectfully. We should find out first if such committees are informed on the matter at hand and convince them, bringing evidences including those discussed above, to accommodate for our needs as an ummah and uphold the commands of the Prophet (ﷺ).
Sometimes we are faced with claims by masjid committees that the masjid is “private property” and not subject to the Islamic considerations for public buildings. Sometimes, these same “private properties” have collected zakāh, acting as masājid. If the building is “private property” and not the house of Allah, then we need to ask what right such private properties have to collect zakāh or donations, or claim to be masājid at all. They cannot jump between English law and Shari’ah law when it pleases them. This is not to call for a rebellious protest by any means, merely guidance on reminding some mosques of the duties they claim to uphold. A masjid is a house of Allah for all Muslims, and must remain so if it is to still be called a masjid.
That being said, not all masājid are big enough or have the resources to provide adequate facilities for women, so our focus should be on the masājid that can accommodate delineated areas for women, either in a separate room or with the addition of partitions in shared spaces.
Maximising use of the masjid
Importantly, if Muslims want to increase mosque attendance for women, we must actually use the masājid that do have access for women. Surveys in the USA show that increasing facilities and accessibility to women often do not increase attendance of women on Fridays above 20%. Often these masājid are left empty and neglected by us, or left unkept, becoming an uninviting place for others.
Muslims should strive to set up classes, seminars, or discussion groups in our masājid on topical issues. Why not have circles discussing quantum mechanics, crypto-currency, or economics? If Muslims held interesting and educational circles at the masjid, it would be natural to expect more Muslims to attend. Likewise, if more Muslims (men and women) attended, it would also be natural to expect more classes and other services to be provided, too.
Avoiding secular feminist campaigns
Muslims should be careful to avoid jumping on secularist campaigns who appear – at first – to be arguing for a place of prayer for women like ourselves but, in reality, are seeking to push a secular liberal philosophy, which will not end at simply increasing the women’s mosque attendance. It may seem that, in seeking to address the issue of women’s access to masājid, that Muslims and secular feminists are aligned in a shared goal. In reality, it is more the case of meeting people upon crossroads, while heading in very different directions.
Secular feminists often campaign for women’s access to mosques in the name of “equality”. Armed with a sympathetic media and political environment in which Western politicians and journalists are ready and willing to help them apply pressure and denigrate the “backwardness” of the Muslim community, they argue that the reason women’s facilities are not prioritised is “misogyny” (i.e. a hatred for women). Their Western perspective on equality and fighting against “misogyny” soon pushes their campaign toward removing partitions in the masājid between the sexes altogether and, thereafter, mixed prayer congregations of men and women side by side (something the Prophet (ﷺ) never did).
The fallacy behind the secular feminists claims is two-fold. Firstly, women’s attendance at mosques is not a problem of discrimination against gender as feminists are wont to portray, but rather only a symptom of a different underlying problem: the distance of the masjid from public life in Muslim societies itself.
Secondly, if secular feminists were consistent in their advocacy of equality, why do they not demand that women must go to Friday prayers as an obligation (as it is obligatory upon men)? They do not, which indicates that their claims for equality only stretch to matters perceived as beneficial for partisan gender interests. In Islam, the rules for women’s and men’s obligations for prayer are notably different – some even could say unequally favoured toward, and less onerous upon, women. What matters to Muslims is the command of Allah and His (swt) Messenger, and the “equality” of the importance of all these commands and prohibitions being upheld, not the Western conceptions or definitions of these words.
Muslims want the masjid to be a holistic institution, for both men and women, because this was the legacy of the Prophet and how it was meant to be – nothing more.
Understand that segregation is not inspired by “misogyny”
Although this might be the case in European thought more recently, where a division is perceived as a sign of disadvantage or a lowly view of women (conveniently ignoring their own “acceptable” sex segregation at the olympics, almost all sports, single sex schools, and even gyms, swimming pool changing rooms and toilets), there was a period when this was in fact seen as a sign of propriety, something to be admired, and even emulated by Christians. However, by the zenith of Ottoman power in the 16th and early 17th centuries, the segregation of the masājid elicited more negative reflections from many European visitors to Istanbul. Even though segregation existed and continued in many English and European churches (and synagogues), historians have noted European observers and how their “admiration for the propriety of Muslim worship arrangements were soon outnumbered by sentiments of disapproval for supposed Muslim misogyny“.
Rather than hoping that secular feminists’ interference will subside, we must, as those who aspire to the Prophetic approach, take the narrative into our own hands and revisit and revive the model of the Prophet (ﷺ).
Men and women abiding by Allah’s commands
We need to remember the Prophet’s (ﷺ) clear commands to us, and ensure that we do not prevent women from coming to the masjid. If there is no women’s section, then we should endeavour to create a women’s section to allow them to attend. We should also remember that just because the Prophet (ﷺ) recommended women to pray at home, it does not negate the fact the women have a right to not be prevented from going to the masjid if they so choose.
In the West today, given that men and women of all backgrounds and religions share all other public spaces, denying women access to the masjid in order to avoid fitnah would be as absurd and nonsensical as saying that because only the Friday prayer is obligatory, then men living far from a masjid should not go to the masjid except for the Friday prayer. I am hopeful that no one would sensibly argue this.
As women, we should give equal importance to the fact that it was recommended that women make the choice to pray at home rather than the masjid, and make our decisions regarding the masjid according to need and circumstance.
Can we encourage the freedom to meet and discuss matters of political importance in the masājid – as we described was the case with the Prophet (ﷺ)’s masjid? Can we establish easy, adequate access to legal advice through our masājid? Can we think of the masjid as a good place to meet other Muslims and network, or make good friends? We cannot make mosques into centres of our community, if we do not think of them as central to our community first.
 The American Mosque 2011, Report Number 3 from the US Mosque Study 2011, Women and the American Mosque, http://www.hartfordinstitute.org/The-American-Mosque-Report-3.pdf
 See ‘UK Mosque Statistics’ report (Sept, 2017): http://www.muslimsinbritain.org/resources/masjid_report.pdf
 Ronald Lewcock, Cities in the Islamic World, ed. Attilo Petruccioli and Khalil K. Pirani, Understanding Islamic Architecture (RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), 41
 See e.g. Muhammad ibn ‘Ali Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, Ihkam al-ahkam sharh ‘umdat al-ahkam (Beirut, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiya, n.d.) 1:169
 See Marion Holmes Katz, Women in the Mosque (New York, Columbia University Press, 2014), 63
 Ibn al-Humam, Fath al-qadir (Cairo, Sharikat wa-Matba’at Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa-Awladihi bi-Misr, 1970), 1:365-366; see also Katz 82
 See e.g. Ali ibn Ahmad Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi, al-Muhalla bi’l-athar, ed. Abd al-Ghaffar Sulayman al-Bundari (Beirut, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiya, 2003), 2:167
 See e.g. Muhammad ibn ‘Ali Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, Ihkam al-ahkam sharh ‘umdat al-ahkam (Beirut, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiya, n.d.) 1:169
 Fatimah bint Qays narrated: “The people were called to prayer, so I rushed with the others to the mosque, and prayed with the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). I was in the first row of women, which was just behind the last row of men.” (Sahih Muslim, 18/84, Kitab al-fitan wa ashrat al-sa’ah, bab qadiyyah al-jasasah). Also: Abu Hurayrah narrated that the Prophet (ﷺ) said: “The best of the men’s rows is the first and the worst is the last, and the best of the women’s rows is the last and the worst in the first.” [Sahih Muslim]. Also see e.g. Abd al-Halim Muhammad Abu Shuqqa, Tahrir al-Mar’a fi ‘asr al-risala (Kuwait, Dar al-Qalam li’l-Nashr wa’l-Tawzi, 2009), 2:195, 197
 Ibn Hazm, al-Muhalla, 3:131 and 4:119
 Al-Bukhari reference in At-Tarikh Al-Kabir, 1/60
 Ali ibn Ahmad al-Sahmudi, Wafa al-wafa bi-akhbar dar al-Mustafa, ed. Muhammad Muhyi al-Din Abd al-Hamid (Cairo, Matba’at Dar al-Sa’ada, n.d.), 2:537
 See discussion in Marion Holmes Katz, Women in the Mosque (New York, Columbia University Press, 2014), 120-121
 See Marion Holmes Katz, Women in the Mosque (New York, Columbia University Press, 2014), 124
 Abu’l-Walid al-Baji, al-Muntaqa sharh Muwatta al-Imam Malik (Beirut, Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, 1984), 5:184; Malik ibn Anas (Sahnun ibn Sa’id al-Tanukhi), al-Mudawwana al-Kubra (Beirut, Dar Sadir, n.d.), 5:144. See Katz 21
 See Mathieu Tillier, Women Before the Qadi Under the Abbasids, Islamic Law and Society 16 (2009), 280-301
 Lisan al-Din Ibn al-Khatib, al-Ihata fi akhbar gharnata (Cairo, Maktabat al-Khanji, n.d.), 3:92. See also Katz, 126
 Malik ibn Anas, Al-Mudawwana al-kubra, transmitted by Sahnun ibn Sa’id al-Tanukhi from Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Qasim (Beirut, Dar al-Kutub al-‘ilmiya, 2005), 1:238
 Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Ta’rikh al-umam wa’l-muluk, ed. Muhammad abu’l-Fadl Ibrahim (Beirut, Dar al-Turath, n.d.), 6:105
 Ibn al-Jawzi, Sifat al-safwa (Beirut, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiya, 1989), 4:32
 Julia Pardoe, City of the Sultan; and the Domestic Manners of the Turks, in 1836 (London, Henry Colburn, 1837), 2:51, 2:53
 Zeynep Celik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations – Algiers under French Rule (University of California Press, 1997), 15-17; see also Zulkeplee Othman, Rosemary Airs, Laurie Buys, Privacy, modesty, hospitality, and the design of Muslim homes: a literature review (Australia, Frontiers of Architectural Research, 2015), Vol. 4, Issue 1, 12-23
 Ibid., 15-17
 See Rabah Saoud, Urban Form, Social Change and the Threat of Civil War in North Africa (Third World Planning Review, 1997) vol.19, No.3, 289-312
 Ibn al-Hajj al-Adbari, Kitab al-Madkhal (Beirut, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiya, 1995), 3:220; see also discussion in Katz, 11
 Marion Holmes Katz, Women in the Mosque (New York, Columbia University Press, 2014), 172-4