Cairo, Egypt Muslims in the Middle East on Saturday angrily denounced a mixed-gender Islamic prayer service led by a woman in New York as a violation of their religion.
Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led the service on Friday before a congregation of 80 to 100 men and women at Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, an Episcopal church.
Three mosques had refused to hold the service, and an art gallery backed out after receiving a bomb threat. Organizers said the service was intended to draw attention to the inequality faced by Muslim women.
Muslims are required to pray five times a day. On Friday, the Muslim holy day, many try to perform their midday prayers at a mosque. A male imam leads the prayer, followed by lines of men and, behind them, women. Most mosques have different halls, or different floors for the women, as well as separate entrances.
Many of the women who attended the service in New York were modestly dressed and, in accordance with Islamic tradition, covered their hair with the hijab, or head scarf. Wadud conducted the service primarily in English with verses of the Quran read in Arabic.
"Women were not allowed to (have) input in the basic paradigms of what it means to be a Muslim," Wadud said after the service.
She added that while the Islamic holy book, the Quran, puts men and women on equal footing, men have distorted its teachings to leave women with no role other than "as sexual partners."
But in the conservative Middle East, Wadud's prayer service was frowned upon.
Soad Saleh, who heads the Islamic department of the women's college at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, considered the act an apostasy, which is punishable by death in Islam.
"It is categorically forbidden for women to lead prayers (if they include men worshippers) and intentionally violates the basics of Islam," she said.
She said women should not lead prayers because "the woman's body, even if veiled, stirs desire."
Saleh also suggested the prayer service was a ploy to weaken Islam.
"It's a foreign conspiracy, through secular (Muslim) organizations, to sow seeds of division between Muslims," she said. "But God will protect his religion."