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Muslims split over gender role

American Muslim women challenge the tradition that only men can lead ritual prayers.

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During her pilgrimage to Mecca, Asra Nomani was surprised when men and women prayed all together; in her mosque in the US, women weren't allowed in the same room.

That experience fueled her personal jihad (or struggle), which, she says, is to reclaim the rightful role of women in Islam given by the prophet Muhammad, but denied by centuries of cultural tradition.

After years of trying to bring change in the mosque, Ms. Nomani and a woman scholar have taken the revolutionary and controversial step in recent weeks of leading the ritual prayer in front of both men and women. That bold action has sent e-mails flying globally, stirred vigorous debate in the United States, and brought condemnation by scholars across the Muslim world as a violation of Islam.

"This is a misleading heresy and sedition," responded the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the 55-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference. Sheikh Mohammad Sayed Tantawi of Cairo's Al-Azhar University said women may lead other women in prayer, but not a mixed-gender congregation. Muslim organizations in the US issued similar critiques.

But a few scholars and women's groups argue that it is not that definitive, pointing to a situation in which the prophet Muhammad designated a woman to lead prayer for a group including men. Whether the men were of her own household or beyond is disputed.

"That revealed to me that the prophet didn't discriminate about the ability of a woman to lead prayer," says Nomani in an interview. She adds that Islamic law scholar Khalid Abou El Fadl of UCLA "pointed me to books of women jurists, including one who led a school of jurisprudence and was an imam [prayer leader] centuries ago."

The sparks flew after Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of "Koran and Woman," first led 150 Muslims - about half men - in the Friday prayer on March 18 in New York City.

Nomani, who was born in India and raised in Morgantown, W.Va., led a small mixed group in prayer on March 23, after speaking at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. She plans to organize more events.

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