by Dr. Mateen Khan (Trenton, New Jersey)
Indeed, one of the sad losses in the modern Muslim community is a loss of `ubudiyyah (servanthood to Allah) as the approach to and goal of Muslim life. Our approach should reflect Islamicizing modern life rather than modernizing Islamic life. During the Prophetic era, the masjid served as the focal point of Islamic life for the community. Men and women frequented the Prophet’s ﷺ masjid. This article aims to place the masjid partition between men and women in its proper context.
The Prophetic Era
When we examine the hadith in an inclusive way, we can more fully appreciate how the simple, one-room masjid of Madinah operated. In general, the Prophet ﷺ established gender separation within the Muslim community and specifically, in the masjid.
For any particular salah, we would see the male Companions enter the masjid first and occupy the front rows. The female Companions would enter with due modesty (explanation below) and occupy the back rows.
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ قَالَ: قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ”خَيْرُ صُفُوفِ الرِّجَالِ أَوَّلُهَا وَشَرُّهَا آخِرُهَا وَخَيْرُ صُفُوفِ النِّسَاءِ آخِرُهَا وَشَرُّهَا أَوَّلُهَا”. صحيح المسلم440
Abu Hurayrah said 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 al-Muslim 440
In fact, the Prophet ﷺ wished for women to have a separate entrance from the men entirely.
عَنْ نَافِعٍ، عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ قَالَ: قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم “لَوْ تَرَكْنَا هَذَا الْبَابَ لِلنِّسَاءِ”. قَالَ نَافِعٌ “فَلَمْ يَدْخُلْ مِنْهُ ابْنُ عُمَرَ حَتَّى مَاتَ”. سنن أبي داود 462, باب فِي اعْتِزَالِ النِّسَاءِ فِي الْمَسَاجِدِ عَنِ الرِّجَالِ
Sayyiduna Ibn `Umar said, “The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, ‘I wish that we would leave this entrance for the women.’” Nafi` (the narrator of this hadith from Sayyiduna Ibn `Umar) said, “Ibn `Umar did not enter through this entrance until his death.” Sunan Abu Dawud 462, Chapter on separating the women from the men in the masjid
Once the men and women were in their respective rows, the Prophet ﷺ would enter the masjid to begin the salah. Afterwards, he ﷺ would turn towards the male Companions behind him. The men would remain stationary while the women exited. Only after their exit did the Prophet ﷺ get up and leave. The men only left after the Prophet ﷺ rose from his place.
أَنَّ أُمَّ سَلَمَةَ ـ رضى الله عنها ـ قَالَتْ: كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم إِذَا سَلَّمَ قَامَ النِّسَاءُ حِينَ يَقْضِي تَسْلِيمَهُ، وَمَكَثَ يَسِيرًا قَبْلَ أَنْ يَقُومَ. قَالَ ابْنُ شِهَابٍ فَأُرَى ـ وَاللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ ـ أَنَّ مُكْثَهُ لِكَىْ يَنْفُذَ النِّسَاءُ قَبْلَ أَنْ يُدْرِكَهُنَّ مَنِ انْصَرَفَ مِنَ الْقَوْمِ. صحيح البخاري 837
Sayyidatuna Umm Salamah said, “When the Messenger of Allah ﷺ would say salam (finishing the salah), the women would stand immediately. He would wait a moment before he would stand.” Ibn Shihab (one of the narrators) said, “Allah knows best, his waiting was so that the women could exit before any of the exiting men could run into them.” Sahih al-Bukhari 837
One immediately notices that gender separation was not enforced by a partition in the Prophet’s ﷺ masjid. One also pictures a scene in which individuals enter in a serene manner, eyes lowered before their Lord in which the men and women enter separately, sit separately and leave separately. Women did not linger engaged in other worship. Even after leaving the masjid, the Prophet ﷺ instructed gender separation in the streets. In fact, the women dressed in a way that made them unrecognizable.
عن حمزة بن أبي أسيد الأنصاري، عن أبيه أَنَّهُ سَمِعَ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَقُولُ – وَهُوَ خَارِجٌ مِنْ الْمَسْجِدِ فَاخْتَلَطَ الرِّجَالُ مَعَ النِّسَاءِ فِي الطَّرِيقِ – فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لِلنِّسَاءِ: اسْتَأْخِرْنَ ، فَإِنَّهُ لَيْسَ لَكُنَّ أَنْ تَحْقُقْنَ الطَّرِيقَ ، عَلَيْكُنَّ بِحَافَّاتِ الطَّرِيقِ . فَكَانَتْ الْمَرْأَةُ تَلْتَصِقُ بِالْجِدَارِ حَتَّى إِنَّ ثَوْبَهَا لَيَتَعَلَّقُ بِالْجِدَارِ مِنْ لُصُوقِهَا بِهِ . أبو داود 5272
Abu Usayd al-Ansari narrated that while the Messenger of Allah ﷺ was leaving the masjid and the men and women were mixing in the street, he said to the women, “Move back. You should not walk in the middle of the street. Keep to the sides of the street.” So the women used to stay so close to the wall that their clothes would touch it. Sunan Abu Dawud 5272.
أَنَّ عَائِشَةَ قَالَتْ: لَقَدْ كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يُصَلِّي الْفَجْرَ، فَيَشْهَدُ مَعَهُ نِسَاءٌ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنَاتِ مُتَلَفِّعَاتٍ فِي مُرُوطِهِنَّ ثُمَّ يَرْجِعْنَ إِلَى بُيُوتِهِنَّ مَا يَعْرِفُهُنَّ أَحَدٌ. صحيح البخاري 372, باب فِي كَمْ تُصَلِّي الْمَرْأَةُ فِي الثِّيَابِ
Sayyidatuna `A’ishah said, “The Messenger of Allah ﷺ used to pray Fajr and some believing women, covered with their veiling sheets, used to attend the Fajr prayer. Then, they would return to their homes unrecognized. Sahih al-Bukhari 372, Chapter on “in how many clothes a woman should offer prayer.”
As mentioned above, “due modesty,” in the context of the Shari`ah, includes covering the `awrah1 completely with a head covering (khimar) and a loose outer garment (jilbab)2 making the contours of the body indiscernible and any amount of visible make-up, thinning of the eyebrows and perfume are prohibited.
وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ ۖ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا لِبُعُولَتِهِنَّ
(The believing women) should wrap their headcovers (khimar) over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands…” Surah al-Nur 31
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰ أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ ۗوَكَانَ اللَّـهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا
O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves part of their outer garments (jilbab). Surah al-Ahzab 59
عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ، أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم لَعَنَ… وَالْمُتَنَمِّصَاتِ مُبْتَغِيَاتٍ لِلْحُسْنِ مُغَيِّرَاتٍ خَلْقَ اللَّهِ. سنن الترمذي
Sayyiduna `Abdullah narrated that the Prophet ﷺ cursed the women who… remove hair from their faces seeking beautification by changing the creation of Allah. Sunan al-Tirmidhi
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “لاَ تَمْنَعُوا إِمَاءَ اللَّهِ مَسَاجِدَ اللَّهِ وَلَكِنْ لِيَخْرُجْنَ وَهُنَّ تَفِلاَتٌ” سنن أبي داود 565
Sayyiduna Abu Hurayrah narrated that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “Do not prevent the female servants of Allah from the masjids of Allah. They should leave their homes without perfume.” Sunan Abu Dawud 565
The Post-Prophetic Era
Very soon after the passing of the Prophet ﷺ and his close Companion Abu Bakr, attitudes and practices began to drift. Men and women neglected the divine command to lower their eyes, cover themselves properly, and their interactions increased to such an extent that it concerned the muftiyyah, confidant and wife of the Prophetﷺ, `A’ishah. She did not issue a ruling. Rather, she elucidated the intent of the Shari`ah in an attempt to correct the mistakes she saw.
عَنْ عَائِشَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهَا قَالَتْ: “لَوْ أَدْرَكَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مَا أَحْدَثَ النِّسَاءُ لَمَنَعَهُنَّ كَمَا مُنِعَتْ نِسَاءُ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ”. صحيح البخاري 569
Sayyidatuna `A’ishah said, “Had the Messenger of Allah ﷺ witnessed what has befallen the women, he would have prevented them (from the masjid) as the women of Bani Isra’il were prevented.” Sahih al-Bukhari 569
In subsequent times, the situation became far worse. Undeniably, today men and women do not lower their eyes, no longer have the modesty and etiquette of their counterparts among the Companions, and mixing is no longer avoided. Muslim women do not dress properly—the jilbab and khimar are almost entirely abandoned, visible make-up and eyebrow thinning are widespread—nor do they avoid perfume. Changed attitudes and behaviors forced Islamic scholars (ulama) to resort to a barrier to enforce the sanctity of the masjid and the objectives of the Shari`ah.
“It is obligatory that a barrier, which prevents sight, be placed between the men and women. For indeed, [the masjid], too, is a place where corruption is expected.”3 Imam al-Ghazali, Ihya Ulum al-Din.
Why a Partition?
Among the objectives of the Sunnah are upholding modesty, discouraging unnecessary gender mixing, and creating an environment conducive to engaging with one’s Lord. A proper partition is conducive to fulfilling these objectives and brings other benefits as well:
- Women do not have to mind their gazes or avoid the gazes of men.
- Anyone who works or studies in a mixed environment is aware that segregation of genders allows greater focus.
- Breast-feeding, changing clothing, and other preparations for prayer are easier.
- Women may focus on their worship without diverting their attention towards maintaining proper hijab.
- Women can remain in the masjid engaged in dhikr, recitation of Qur’an and learning.
With a partition, exposing the `awrah or its contours and wearing make-up is permissible in the masjid. However, removing the partition makes all of these forbidden (haram) and sinful effectively inviting the displeasure of Allah in His own House.
In addition, the Prophet ﷺ did establish gender separation as an integral part of the masjid. During his time, the masjid was a gathering place for men, which allowed women during the salah or special gatherings. Narrations about men sitting in the Prophet’s ﷺ masjid at times other than the salah are too numerous to count. They engaged in dhikr, recitation of Qur’an and learning. Narrations about the people of Suffah, a group of dedicated men that lived in a section adjacent to the masjid, are also many. Yet, we do not find any mention of women doing the same.
Some will point to areas of employment, schooling, and shopping as areas of mixed gender interaction in our times. Why is it that we are quiet about gender separation in those areas but seemingly hypocritical in the masjid? Unlike the other areas, we are responsible for the masjid’s environment, and we will be asked about it on the Day of Judgment. The fact is that the masjid is not like the areas of shopping. It is a place of sanctity and a model of ideal Islamic life even in non-Muslim lands.
(671 عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ: ”أَحَبُّ الْبِلاَدِ إِلَى اللَّهِ مَسَاجِدُهَا وَأَبْغَضُ الْبِلاَدِ إِلَى اللَّهِ أَسْوَاقُهَا” (صحيح المسلم
Sayyiduna Abu Hurayrah narrated that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “The most beloved piece of land to Allah is its masjids and the most hated piece of land is its areas of shopping.” Sahih al-Muslim 671
In summary, no claim is made that the partition is itself an objective of the Shari`ah. Rather, it is a means to fulfilling the objectives of the Shari`ah: modesty, gender separation, concentration in worship, sanctity of the masjid and avoiding the displeasure of Allah. If our men and women adopt the etiquette of the Prophetic era, in which these objectives are attained without a partition, then there is no reason to have a physical barrier. Otherwise, if we insist on removal of the partition because it didn’t exist in the Prophetic era, then logically we should insist on a separate entrance for women, their immediate exit before all of the men, their wearing the proper dress of the female Companions, and many other things.
Women should be welcomed in the masjids, consulted in affairs affecting them, and given optimal prayer areas. The community should take steps to ensure functional speaker and/or projection systems, and if necessary, dedicated time with the imam or scholar for further learning or questioning. Communities should invest in female scholars to educate and guide our women. This can be accomplished with a partition while maintaining the sanctity of the masjid and the spirit of the Sunnah. This is the balanced approach and the one most in-line with the Shari`ah.
For the greater part of the existence of this deen, scholars such as Imam al-Ghazali called for a barrier between men and women. Were he and other scholars mistaken in this approach only to be corrected by a few modern day scholars? Did they so easily deviate from the dictates of their Lord and the example of their Prophet ﷺ due to their patriarchal inclinations? May Allah protect us from such ridiculous thoughts about our scholars and instead, permit us to ponder on whether we are mistaken.
1 The `awrah of a Muslim woman in front of a non-mahram man is her entire body except for her face and hands.
2 “In the Arabic language, the jilbab, which the Messenger of Allah ﷺ spoke to us about, covers the entire body not just part of it.” Al-Muhalla li Ibn Hazm 2:378.
3 (3 إحياء علوم الدين (2/ 337
ويجب أن يضرب بين الرجال والنساء حائل يمنع من النظر فإن ذلك أيضاً مظنة الفساد والعادات تشهد لهذه
المنكرات ويجب منع النساء من حضور المساجد للصلوات ومجالس الذكر إذا خيفت الفتنة بهن فقد منعتهن
عائشة رضي الله عنها فقيل لها أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ما منعهن من الجماعات فقالت لو علم
رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ما أحدثن بعده لمنعهن وأما اجتياز المرأة في المسجد مستترة فلا تمنع منه إلا
أن الأولى أن لا تتخذ المسجد مجازاً أصلاً