Gender Studies

Women in the Mosque: Historical Perspectives on Segregation

This paper deals with the issue of women’s full or partial access to the mosque from 610-925. This period is divided into two timeframes. The first, 610-34, consists mainly of the time in which the Prophet was active in Makkah and Madinah. The second, 634-925, is the period beginning with `Umar’s reign to the time when the Hadith literature was written down and set into the well-known compilations. Two types of evidence are examined for both periods: material and textual records. Material records consist of the layout of the various mosques, where the existence or absence of dividing walls or separate entrances could be important clues. Textual records consist mainly of the Qur’an and Hadith literature.

The Qur’an is used as a primary source for the first period, whereas the Hadith literature is used as a primary source for the second period. The Hadith is used to distinguish trends and directions in the Muslim community after the demise of the Prophet, rather than as a source of information on the Prophet himself. This avoids problems of authenticity, while not denying that much of the Hadith may well be authentic. From the primary sources available for the first period, there does not appear to be any evidence of segregation; rather the evidence indicates that women had full access to the mosque. In the second period, three trends appear: a pro-segregation trend, an anti-segregation trend, and a trend that sought to prohibit women from going to the mosque altogether.


The early mosque was not only a place for prayer, but also a center for many other activities as well. It functioned as the school where people learned their religion, and the Parliament where the community discussed new laws and affairs of state. It was also the courthouse where judgments were passed, and the community center where families met their friends and neighbors and held their celebrations. In short, it was the hub and center of public life for the emerging Muslim nation.1

For women, the mosque meant access to almost every aspect of public life. Debarring or limiting their access means restricting their participation in public life. Gender segregation, as seen in most mosques today, is such a limitation, for it limits women’s full access. This both hampers their participation and can even shut them out completely. Segregation can be implemented either through a screen or a wall, or by distance, as happens when placing women behind men during the congregational prayers. This paper will provide a historical analysis of women’s physical access to mosques. The status of women in Islam, especially with regards to such issues as marriage, inheritance, veiling, and seclusion, has received a great deal of scholarly attention.2 However, little has been written on gender segregation in the mosque. One should perhaps mention Nimat Hafez Barazangi, who has expressed the need for women to frequent mosques in her “Muslim Women’s Islamic Higher Learning as a Human Right: The Action Plan.”3

However, she does not address gender segregation. Other works include Nabia Abbott’s “Women and the State in Early Islam,” which provides a useful historical perspective on this issue during the early Islamic period.4 Also noteworthy is the work of two Islamic scholars. The first one is Muhammad al-Ghazali, a conservative scholar who advocated a better position for women.5 He severely criticized the widespread exclusion of women from the mosque and defended their right to participate, albeit behind the men and only if they had fulfilled their household chores. The second one is Ahmad Shawqi al-Fanjari, who specifically addressed segregation in his Al-Ikhtilat fi al-Din fi al-Tarikh fi ‘Ilm al-Ijtima`. He promoted non-segregation and women’s participation in public life, including the mosque.6

In my historical overview, I deal with the period from the beginning of Muhammad’s career as a prophet in 610 until about 925, when many of the first textual sources were recorded. I then divide this period into two subperiods. The first subperiod consists mainly of the time during which the Prophet was active in both Makkah and Madinah (610-32) and when the Qur’an, the foundation of the Islamic faith, was revealed. During this time, religion was in the hands of one person, who was regarded by his followers as the ultimate religious authority. This can be viewed as a theocratic period, for the people believed that God was guiding them through the Prophet. It is also characterized as a prophetic or “ideal” period. The reign of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (632-34) will be regarded as more or less a continuation of that time, since it was too short and he was too faithful to the Prophet’s example to allow any changes in women’s situation.7

The first major changes in the placement of women in the mosque took place during `Umar ibn al-Khattab’s reign (634-44), which initiated the second subperiod. By this time, most of the primary textual sources used in this study had been recorded. This was also a time of conquest, when Islam spread into new lands and Muslims interacted with many other peoples. Religion was now in the hands of a scholarly elite that had emerged over the years. In addition, this was a formative period for Islam, when many of its religious laws and doctrines were formulated. This time can be characterized as an “interactive” period, for many debates took place within the Muslim community. Using primary and some secondary sources relating to these subperiods, I will evaluate and contrast women’s access to the mosque. To do this, we must examine the primary material and textual sources. The material record consists mainly of the mosques’ architecture. But since most early mosques have been changed and restructured, we cannot acquire a clear picture of the original layout from the material record alone.

Therefore, textual sources also are consulted for they enable us to identify such physical and spatial features to determine if there were any walls or other barriers separating men and women, and whether they used separate entrances. These architectural features can provide important evidence about the nature of women’s presence and participation in early mosques. Primary textual sources, mainly the Qur’an and Hadith literature, also provide a historical context. For the early period, our main record is the Qur’an. Although it does not contain a great deal of historical information, both western and Muslim scholars consider the Qur’an to be a useful source for information on the Prophet’s life and practice. In this study, the Qur’an will be used as a reflection of the first period’s sociocultural conditions as well as a means to discern prophetic narratives.

The Hadith literature is often used as a primary source for the Prophet’s directions and model behavior. However, the first compilations, which had been scrutinized by early scholars for authenticity, appeared only in the ninth century. This inadvertently raises questions of reliability. Western scholars hold views ranging from rejecting the entire traditional literary corpus to according it the status of a genuine core.8 On the other hand, Muslim scholarly opinion ranges from accepting the entire “canonical” corpus to subjecting it to rigorous criticism. The latter group has called attention to the problems associated with some of the traditions.9 Prominent advocates of the “canonical” corpus seem to have recognized some of these problems and, as a result, have attempted to solve them by “contextualization” and “interpretation.”10

This study neither seeks to investigate the various reports’ authenticity nor the individual motives behind preserving or composing them. Rather, the material will be used as a reflection of the directions and inclinations of the people who retained and transmitted the Hadith literature. Thus, this literature will be limited as a primary textual source for the second period under investigation, rather than for the first. This approach will avoid any conflict over authenticity and, at the same time, will not deny the fact that much of the Hadith literature could well be authentic and contain accurate historical information on the Prophet.

Another textual source used in this study is Ibn Sa`d’s biographical dictionary, which contains important historical information on the periods of `Umar and `Uthman. Both Ibn Sa`d (d. 845) and the events he recounts belong to the second period under examination. One should perhaps also mention al-Azraqi, who belongs to the second period.11 His book, Akhbar Makkah, contains important information on the Makkan sanctuary.

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