Answered by Ustadha Zaynab Ansari
Question: Why are women required to pray behind men in a Mosque? I heard somewhere it is to stop the men from being distracted by the women, which is apparently unavoidable if men pray behind the women. If a man’s intentions for praying at the Mosque is truly pure, it shouldn’t matter whether he is praying in front of or behind women. If he finds the women distracting, I think he went there with false intentions.
Answer: In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Thank you for your question. I pray this message finds you well.
Islam’s teachings on gender relations are imminently practical and pragmatic. Often, Islam does not legislate on the basis of how people should be but how they actually are. God knows men and He knows women. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, who was the human vessel for divine revelation, understood human nature in a profound way.
Everything that Sacred Law prescribes is based on the idea that the primary sources of Islam (the Qur’an and Prophetic tradition) do not stipulate a thing except that there is some overriding wisdom in it. So the attitude with which we should approach the issue is that of gracious acceptance. If the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, commanded that women pray behind men, then he had a good reason.
It is not fair to read his tradition from a presentist standpoint and look at the configuration of the prayer in terms of female subordination to men. It’s not about male superiority or female inferiority. That women stand behind men does not suggest that they are secondary in the sight of God. God’s sight encompasses all.
Furthermore, Islam is a religion whose overriding characteristic is modesty. The prayer is very physical. Some men might be able to ignore a woman standing beside them or in front of them. Others might not be so successful. If men weren’t moved by the female body, then the billion-dollar advertising industry that objectifies and commodifies women would not exist.
Since Islam is about reality and dealing with people the way they are, there are specific prescriptions governing male-female interaction and these prescriptions extend to the prayer. Note, however, that outside of the formal prayer, there is no requirement in Islam that women always be out of men’s sight.
For example, in educational settings, women often sit parallel to men, albeit separated by some sort of divider. This type of separation should not be misconstrued. It is an important social etiquette, not an indication of one’s standing before God.
And Allah knows best,
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani