Segregation Between Men and Women

Shaykh Gibril Fouad Haddad

Q. Some of us have been debating for the last few days on the segregation between men and women in general on which I need your kind help. Could you please refer to any good book or Quran/Hadith sources that do tell us that segregation is preferable as it was understood by traditional scholars for centuries (correct me if I am wrong).

A. With permission from Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani:

The stipulations of the shari`a concerning the prayer of women in mixed congregation are as follows [Preference comes before permission and the avoidance of evil before the practice of good, hence the order of the texts followed below]:

It is preferable to stay at home in absolute terms. It is permissible to pray in the mosque in mixed assembly, although it is preferable for women to avoid going out for prayer in mixed assembly despite their permission. Segregation between men and women must be observed both in entering and inside the mosque, and women pray behind men. When religion is in jeopardy, that is, TODAY, IT IS BEST TO GO TO THE MOSQUES AND HOMES WHERE ALLAH IS REMEMBERED, WHETHER THE GATHERING IS MIXED OR NOT.

1. It is preferable to stay at home

  1. according to the verse: “And stay in your houses” (33:33) Note: The verse is addressed to the Prophet’s wives in particular, and to all women in general;
  2. according to the hadith: Umm Salama the Prophet’s wife said: The Prophet said — Allah’s blessings be upon him: “The best mosques for women are the inner chambers of their homes.” Tabarani narrated it in “al-Mu`jam al-kabir” and Haythami said in “Majma` al-zawa’id” that its chain contains Ibn Luhay`a, who is subject to question among the experts of authentication; however, it is confirmed by the fact that Ahmad and Abu Ya`la narrate it in the form: “The best prayers for the omen are in the inner chambers of their homes.”
  3. according to the hadith of Umm Humayd the wife of Abu Humayd al-Sa`id. She once said to the Prophet: “Messenger of Allah, I long to pray with you.” He replied: “I know that you love to say prayer with me but the prayer you offer in your chamber is more excellent than the prayer you offer in your courtyard, and the prayer which you offer in your courtyard is more excellent than the one your observe in the mosque of your tribe [i.e. the mosque nearest to your home], and your prayer in the mosque of your tribe is better than the one you offer in my mosque [in Madina].” After this she ordered a mosque built in the farthest and darkest quarter of her house and did all her prayers in it until she met Allah the Glorious and the Exalted. [I.e. she did not even go out to her courtyard or to the mosque of her tribe.] Ahmad narrated it in his “Musnad.” Haythami said: “Its subnarrrators are those of the sound (sahih) grade, except for `Abd Allah ibn Suwayd whom Ibn Hibban considered of the trustworthy (thiqa) grade.” It is supported by Ibn Mas`ud’s hadith in Abu Dawud (#570) whereby the Prophet (s) said the same words but in relation to women in general.

2. It is permissible to pray in the mosque in mixed assembly

  1. Because `Abd Allah ibn `Umar said that the Prophet (s) said: “When women ask permission for going to the mosque, do not prevent them” (Muslim, English 1:240 #884) and “Do not prevent Allah’s maid-servants from going to the mosque” (Muslim #886) and “Do not prevent women from going to the mosque at night” (for `Isha prayer) (Muslim #888); Abu Hurayrah reports the same as #886 but with the ending: “but let them go out without perfuming themselves.” (Abu Dawud, English 1:149 #565). This wording is found also in Muslim in the two hadiths of Zaynab al-Thaqafiyya the wife of `Abd Allah ibn `Umar and the hadith of Abu Hurayra (respectively #892-894);
  2. Because of the Prophet’s wording in Umm Humayd’s hadith above, which did not defend her but merely exhorted her not to go out.
  3. Ibn `Umar heavily rebuked those who were bent on preventing the women from attending the mosque: His son Bilal ibn `Abd Allah said: “By Allah we shall certainly prevent them,” whereupon `Abd Allah ibn `Umar turned and reprimanded him more harshly than I [the sub-narrator] have ever seen him do before. He said: “I am narrating to you that which comes from Allah’s Messenger and you have the audacity to say: By Allah we shall certainly prevent them?!” (Muslim #885; cf. Abu Dawud #568) In another version the son is identified as Waqid, and the father thumps the son’s chest as he says to him: “I am narrating to you the hadith of Allah’s Messenger and you say: No?!” (Muslim #890)

3. It is preferable for women to avoid going out for prayer in mixed assembly despite their permission

  1. See Section 1.
  2. Because of what `Amra the daughter of `Abd al-Rahman said: I heard `A’isha (the Prophet’s wife) say: “If Allah’s Messenger had seen what new things the women have introduced (in their way of life) he would have definitely prevented them from going to the mosque, as the women of Bani Isra’il were prevented afore.” (Muslim #895, Abu Dawud #569);
  3. Because of Ibn `Umar’s caution, despite his insistence on their Allah-given permission, in that he reported that the Prophet said: “Do not prevent your women from visiting the mosques; but their houses are better for them (for praying).” (Abu Dawud #567).

4. Segregation between men and women must be observed both in entering and inside the mosque, and women pray behind men

  1. Because of Ibn `Umar and (more likely) `Umar’s narration that the Prophet (s) indicated a certain door of his (?) mosque with the words: “Leave this door for women.” Nafi` [the sub-narrator] said: “Ibn `Umar did not enter this door until his death. (Abu Dawud #462) Nafi` said: “`Umar ibn al-Khattab used to prohibit men to enter through the door reserved for women. (Abu Dawud #464).
  2. Because of the Prophet’s explicit saying reported by Abu Hurayra: Allah’s Messenger said: “The best rows for men are the first rows and the worst, the last rows; and the best rows for women are the last rows and the worst, the first.” (Muslim #881) Imam Nawawi said in his commentary on Muslim (“Sharh sahih Muslim” ed. Shaykh Khalil al-Mays, Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 3rd ed. 4:404 book of Salat ch. 28 #132): “The part of the statement concerning men is understood in absolute terms; the part of the statement concerning women, in relative terms, i.e. if they pray in mixed congregation. However, if they pray alone, then the same applies to them as for the men: the best rows are the first, and the worst rows, the last. What is meant by “worst rows,” both for men and for women, is that there is the least reward and merit in them and that they are the farthest from the criteria of the law, and vice-versa concerning “the best.” The only merit of the last rows for women in a mixed congregation is that these rows are the farthest removed from mixture with men, from their sight by women, and from the heart’s fondness upon seeing their motions and hearing their voices and so forth, and vice-versa concerning the blameworthiness of their first rows. And Allah knows best.”
  3. Because of Sahl ibn Sa`d’s report: “I saw men having tied the ends of their lower garments around their necks, like children, due to shortage of cloth [because of poverty] and offering their prayers behind Allah’s Messenger, Peace be upon him. One of the proclaimers said: O womenfolk, do not lift your heads [from prostration] until men raise theirs [and readjust their garments].” (Muslim #883). This shows that the women prayed behind the men, else there would have been no sense in specifically prohibiting them from raising their heads first.

5. When religion is in jeopardy, that is, today, it is best to go to the mosques and homes where Allah is remembered, whether the gathering is mixed or not.

This is the opinion of many of the scholars today, and it is the opinion of our Naqshbandi shaykhs concerning mixed gatherings of dhikr. The latter — mixed or not — foster excellent habits, modesty, decency, and respect between men and women, certainly more than all the forms of mixed gatherings prevalent in modern life. They also act as an effective counterbalance to the pervasive taking-over of materialism and spiritual indifference typical of modern life. Therefore we must believe that the Prophet (s) also foresaw this and spoke of our times when he said not to prevent women from attending the mosque, in the light of the instructions expressed or understood in other hadiths, the term “mosque” including homes used as mosques where people gather for the remembrance of Allah.

The modality of standing for prayer (men in front, women behind) is not subject to change, while the modality of separating between men and women in dhikr gatherings is less formal and might differ widely in strictness from East to West. With respect to cultural paradigms of modesty the best manners must be observed, and good manners are of the essence of religion. It is said that the good manners of the student can only be as good as the good manners of the shaykh (teacher), and that he who has no shaykh, his shaykh is shaytan. Therefore do not remain alone, and seek a genuine not an ignorant teacher. Allah said: “Believers: stay with the truthful ones.” (9:119) Therefore, as Shah Naqshband said, “Our path is companionship [with the saints]; and goodness is in the gathering [of students with their shaykh].” In all these things the only objective is remembrance of Allah, not of each other. And Allah knows best and to Him is the returning.

I recommend to you to look up the book: <<Reliance of the Traveller>> by al-Misri, translated by Nuh Keller. It is an exhaustive manual of fiqh that has over 1,000 pages and contains the original Arabic text side-by-side with a high quality of English translation.

Other books germane to your request:

– “Woman in shari`a” by Abd al-Rahman Doi (very good). Widely available. – “Marriage in Islam” by Muhammad Abd al-Rauf (was rector of Islam University of Malaysia) – “The Islamic View of Women and the Family” by M. Abd al-Rauf (a very good book on the topic. New York: Robert Speller and Sons, 1977. ISBN Publication Number 0-8315-0156-1.) Available from Saadawi Publications, PO Box 4059, Alexandria, VA 222303, USA. FAX 703-329-8052. – “Marriage and Sexuality in Islam” by Ghazali, a very useful but imperfect translation by Madelyn Farah (a Christian) of the book of nikah from his <<Ihya `Ulum al-Deen>>. – There is also a small book on sexual ethics in Islam by Dr. Ahmad Sakr which is popular and useful for young men, and easily obtainable.