On March 18, Dr. Amina Wadud--a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University--led a historic Friday prayer, or jumu'a, service in New York City. Traditionally, Muslim scholars have said and written that Muslim women are not allowed to lead other men in formal prayer, on Friday or otherwise. Wadud's belief to the contrary challenges centuries of Muslim thought on this issue; naturally, the event has caused an enormous amount of controversy.

The event drew a number of protesters. They held signs saying, "Mixed-Gender Prayers Today, Hellfire Tomorrow" and "May Allah's curse be upon Ameena Wadoud." Many have called Wadud an "apostate" for leading a mixed-gender Friday prayer. Brooklyn native Mohammed Nussrah, as quoted by the Associated Press, said, "If this was an Islamic state, this woman would be hanged." According to someone who attended the event, a bearded man was dragged out of the venue yelling "Allahu Akbar," or "God is the Greatest."

The prayer was held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal church in Manhattan. Yet, that was not the original choice: the Sudaram Tagore Gallery in New York. After a bomb threat was received, the venue was dropped out of concern for the safety of the participants, and organizers did not announce the new location. Three mosques refused to host the event, although no reason was reported.

My purpose in speaking about this issue is not to debate the merit of Wadud's argument about women leading mixed gender prayer. I'll leave that to the scholars of our community. What motivates me to write is the reaction by some in the Muslim community to this event.

Wadud is an "apostate"? God's curse should be upon those who organized the event? Hellfire is in store for those who attended the mixed-gender Friday prayer? A bomb threat to the gallery? Why? Because Wadud believes that women are allowed to lead a mixed-gender prayer? One of the prayer service's chief sponsors, MuslimWakeup.com, was repeatedly hacked in the days and weeks before the event. On one of these occasions, the hackers re-directed the site to one entitled, "Murtad Wakeup." Murtad is the Arabic term for "apostate."

This angers me very deeply. Why can't these detractors disagree without being violently disagreeable?

First of all, the Qur'an clearly states that Muslims should not accuse each other of not being Muslim. Verse 4:94 says, "O ye who believe! When ye go abroad in the cause of God, investigate carefully, and say not to any one who offers you a salutation of peace: 'Thou art not a believer!' Coveting the perishable goods of this life: with God are profits and spoils abundant. Even thus were ye yourselves before, till God conferred on you His favours: Therefore carefully investigate. For God is well aware of all that ye do" (4:94).

This verse was revealed after companions of the Prophet killed two people along a road--even though they greeted them with "salam," indicating they were fellow Muslims--and took their possessions, thinking they were members of a hostile pagan tribe. God rebuked them, saying "you used to be barbarians like this before I blessed you with Islam." Now, this does not mean that it is OK to kill non-Muslims (just in case you were thinking that). It just means that Muslims should not be in the business of questioning the faith of their brothers and sisters in faith.

The Qur'an also said: "...do not defame or be sarcastic to each other, and do not call each other by (offensive) nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, (to be used of one) after he has believed: And those who do not desist are (indeed) doing wrong" (49:11).

I don't have a problem with those who disagreed with the event taking place protesting and voicing their disagreement. That is their right. I do have a problem, however, with their cursing Wadud and those who supported her stance and condemning them to Hell. They have no right to say that.

This situation frustrates me enormously. Why can't we simply disagree? Since the event was announced, I have watched a vigorous debate take place about female leadership in prayer--and it was refreshing. Refreshing because age old traditions are being questioned, and this is healthy for the Muslim community, even if the age old traditions end up surviving a stern re-examination.

It is refreshing also because I learned something new: there are some Muslim scholars who agree with women leading the prayer. I never knew that before, and I am happy to learn something new about my faith. The most refreshing aspect of the debate, however, is that it has largely been civil and respectful, becoming of the community God and His Prophet wanted us to be.

Intimidation, making threats, hurling insults, invoking the curse of God, and condemning to Hell, on the other hand, is not becoming of the community God and His Prophet wanted us to be. It stifles debate; it hardens hearts; it further divides, and it destroys the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood that both God and His Prophet stressed were paramount.

And it makes the news. Although these tactics of "defending the faith" are being used by a small minority of Muslims, the damage has already been done: all Muslims are made to look like intolerant barbarians. When will this madness end?

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