Short Answer: Perhaps they can, in certain situations wherein there is a lack of qualified male leaders. It’s up for debate among Muslim scholars, and has been for centuries. Scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah, one of the classical scholars, held that a woman could actually lead prayer in a mixed congregation, at least for the taraweeh prayer, if there is no man available who has memorized the entire Quran. There was a preference for men, but the underlying understanding is that there is nothing that prohibits the community from appointing a woman.
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Dr. Shabir Ally of Let the Quran Speak addresses this question in the video below.
Transcript (beginning at minute 1:46)[…]
Aisha Khaja: So if we’re saying the Quran and Islam promote female leadership, how do you explain the situation where females aren’t able to or are encouraged not to lead mixed congregations in prayer?
Dr. Shabir Ally: This is a matter that’s been discussed by a classical Muslim scholars.
And in fact, the very fact that it has been discussed in classical times shows that it is actually possible for women to lead prayers even in a mixed circumstance.
We have the clearest example of this though of a limited nature as the example of Umm Wariqa, a woman in the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, who asked the prophet… to appoint for her a muezzin, a caller to prayer, so that she could lead the people of her household in prayer.
And the word here is “dar,” so it could be just the the immediate house, or it could be perhaps a larger enclosure of houses together that would be considered like one large extended family.
So in any case, that congregation small though it would have been, included a male person who was the muezzin.
The narrator of this says that “I saw this muezzin and he was old,” but this is kind of like trying to justify the fact, like “Okay, he was a man…but he was old.”
But in any case, old or young, the fact is that it is possible for a woman to lead a man in prayer. This is established.
Now the question is—and this is what Muslim scholars had discussed: is it possible for her to lead a larger gathering, like in a mosque, for example?
And naturally people gravitated to the idea that the leader would be a man, because generally they thought… the person who is most admired for his qualities, his leadership abilities, his knowledge, and he does not have any disrespect-able features about him…
So if they compared men and women, in their thinking, men by far champion women…
Aisha Khaja: This is sort of the mentality at the time…
Dr. Shabir Ally: So, for them, it was natural that a man would lead the prayer.
But when they thought systematically about whether or not it is possible for a woman to lead the prayer, there are some who admitted yeah, even in the mosque situation, a woman can lead the prayer.
And they saw this most clearly when there is a deficiency in the community in terms of the leadership abilities of men.
When it comes to the night prayer of Ramadan, the taraweeh prayers in which the Quran is often recited from cover to cover, all from memory–to accomplish that, it is best done by one who was memorized the entire Quran.
So he reads it from memory. He doesn’t hold a copy of the Quran to read from the book.
But what if there is no man who has memorized the entire Quran, but you have a woman who has done it?
So in that case, some of them said, “Well, yeah, the woman can lead the congregation.”
And then came the question, “Where would she stand?” because if she stands in front of the men and then she bows and prostrates, men will be behind her. That doesn’t seem appropriate.
So some said, “Okay she will stand among the women towards the rear of the mosque… and still lead the prayer from there.”
So these discussions actually took place hundreds of years ago.
And scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah, one of the classical scholars, held that a woman could actually lead prayer in a mixed congregation, at least for the taraweeh prayer, if there is no man available who has memorized the entire Quran.
So there was a preference for men, but the underlying understanding is that there is nothing that prohibits the community from appointing a woman.
Of course, keeping all things in balance.
You want decency in the society, you want to preserve the community from falling into error, and into relationships outside of marriage, and so on.
But there are certain benefits that we see in having women as leaders, especially in our present times.
Watch the video to learn more!