Between Allah and I: Where Do Muslim Women in India Go to Pray?

To answer the question, it is important to first understand the praying regimens of Muslims in India.

8 min read
Hindi Female

When author and historian Rana Safvi and I went to the Aulia Masjid in Connaught Place in New Delhi, she asked if she could pray inside. We were directed to the first floor of the mosque, where a young boy – probably a madrasa student – was sitting and an old man was praying.

Safvi offered the Asr (evening) prayers followed by Namaz-e-Shukrana (non-obligatory, thanksgiving prayers). When she was done, we began to converse.

She told me how most mosques allow women to pray. The gallery areas of the most historic mosque – the Jama Masjid – are reserved for women to offer their prayers. These stay reserved on big days like Eid and Chand-Raats (sighting of the moon a day before Eid).

Rana Safvi told me how she has been offering prayers regularly for the last 30 years.

We always remember Allah in our troubled times, but we should also be saying our Shukr (thanks) to Allah all the time and keep praying. The most important thing in life is to be nice, charitable and good to everyone. Allah ka hukum hai ki namaz padho ya na padho, woh tumhein maaf ker denge, par kissi ka dil dukhaya toh sirf wahi maaf karega (It is Allah’s orders that one has to offer prayers, but whether you pray or not, Allah will forgive. However, if you break someone’s heart, only that person can forgive you).   
Rana Safvi, author 

Islamic scholar and retired professor Zeenat Shaukat Ali, who has visited Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia, has prayed inside different mosques around the world without any discrimination. It is only in India, she says, that misinterpretations of religious texts, are creating hurdles for women to pray inside mosques.

“Women are allowed everywhere else in the world to pray; it is only in India that everything is so weird.”

She reminisced about how in the early 1970s, she would go to the Gol Masjid in Mumbai (which used to be dominated by men) to offer her Jumma (Friday) prayer, and no one would try to stop her.


Where Indian Muslims Pray

In this context, it is important to understand the praying regimens of Muslims in India.

There are mainly two broad maslaks (sects) in Islam: Sunnis and Shias. Sunnis can be divided into four different schools of thought in Islamic jurisprudence – Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanbali.

In India, 80 percent of the Muslim population are Hanafi, 7 percent Shias, and 13 percent are Malikis and Shafi’is. Less than 3 percent are Ahle-Hadiths (another Sunni maslak).

During the time of Prophet Mohammed, men and women always prayed together in the mosque in different rows. In fact, Masjid-e-Nabwi – the Prophet’s mosque in Medina – has separate enclosures for men and women, where equal respect is given to followers from both genders.

The Prophet would allow women to offer prayers in the mosque, but since there were no physical divisions inside the mosque, men were told to pray in the front so that when women went into the Sajdah (prostration) they didn’t feel self-conscious about their bodies and concentrated on prayer.


“Not Obligatory for Women to Pray Inside Mosques”

The Imam (caretaker) of Masjid Umar Farooque in Dongri, Mumbai, Maulana Rashid Asad Nadvi told The Quint that if women wish to pray inside the mosques, it is a good thing. However, since it is not fard (obligatory) for women to offer the congregational prayers of Friday or Eid, as is the case with men, there aren't many mosques which have a designated space for women to pray.

Nadvi also said that according to Islamic tradition, women are encouraged to offer their prayers individually at home. However, if a woman wishes to offer prayers inside the mosque, she can do so following complete purdah as laid down in the Shariat (Islamic law).


So, Where Do Indian Muslim Women Pray?

The fact that praying at home is preferable does not mean that women are not permitted to go to the mosque, as is clear from the following hadith.

From ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar, said: “I heard the Messenger of Allah SAWS (peace be upon him) say: ‘Do not prevent your women from going to the mosque if they ask your permission.’’’
Most of the mosques in Delhi do have space for women but it isn’t a compulsion to pray inside a mosque, and for women I feel it is easier to pray at home as they have a hundred more things to do. I also feel the majority of men only come to the mosque for the Friday namaz and only the people who work close to mosques are the ones who specifically come to the mosques to offer their namaz.
Rana Safvi, author

Working Women Pray Wherever They Can

I grew up with a tradition of prayers in my home in Kashmir. It was as a child that I learnt the surahs (chapters of the Quran). Even as I grew up, I continued my spiritual journey and never gave up praying. Praying is a very humbling experience – the moment I go into Sajdah (prostration), I feel connected to a higher power and feel that the Almighty will take care of me.  I pray whenever I can.
Zeeshan Hassan, 35, state head of Kaivalya Education Foundation, Jammu & Kashmir

Hassan says, “Ki Sajdah mein gir padhey, jab bhi waqt-e-hisaab aaya (why bow down in adoration/prayers when one needs to clear one’s account for Judgement Day, why not before?)?”

Acha nahi lagta jab tak namaz na padhun, aur jab padhlun to sukhoon sa mehsoos kerti hoon (I don’t feel good till the time I’ve prayed, but once I’ve offered them, I feel very peaceful).
Tabbassum Jamal, 38, beautician

Tabassum runs a beauty salon in the narrow lanes of Vaqil Wali Gali, Old Delhi.
She says that except for Fajr (dawn) prayer, she usually offers all her prayers at her salon.


Afreen attended a prayer meet by her neighbour Razia, who guided her to offer her daily prayers.


Rabia told The Quint that it was her mother who used to urge her to pray regularly, but she never did; it was after her mother passed away that she took to prayers in her memory.


Between the Mosque and Home…

It is in our Hadith that Muslim women should be allowed to pray inside the mosques. Most of the Ahle-Hadith mosques do have a separate enclosure where women can offer their prayers.
Maulana Razaullah Abdul Karim, 60

The Power of Prayers

Whenever I feel very anxious – about studies, exams or other things – I offer Nafil namaz (non-obligatory namaz) and I feel my burden getting lighter. Offering namaz regularly is very peaceful.
Alina Rehman, 21, masters student, Jamia Milia University
My prayers are between my Allah and me. I had a school friend, Zubia, who guided me to pray as a child and we used to call each other up early in the morning before the Fajr prayers and pray together at our homes before going to school. Fajr (dawn prayer) and Maghrib (dusk prayer) prayers have now become something that I never miss. The days I am not able to pray during Fajr, I feel that something is missing in my life.   
Asma Rafat, 29, journalist

Asma remembers when she was once stopped from praying in a class:

I remember in 2012, when I was  studying in AJK Mass Communication Research Centre in Delhi, I had worn jeans on a Friday and I was offering my prayers. The lab assistant came up to me and started telling me that my prayers would not be accepted because of what I was wearing. But my prayers are for myself, they are not defined by what I wear.

“I was suffering from severe depression between 2012 and 2016. I was desperately searching for ways to cope and find peace. Then, in December 2016, I came upon lectures by scholars Nouman Ali Khan, Yasmin Mujaheed, and Mufti Ismail Menk and began to feel a sense of contentment. I started offering namaz daily without fail. Two friends came together to help pray with me – they work as my support system,” says 23-year-old Aisha, a masters student in graphics and animation.

Aisha believes the prayers have truly helped heal her and she feels much better now.


Clearly, nothing in Islam forbids women from entering mosques – although unlike men, for whom praying in congregation is mandatory, it has been kept optional for women.

Even the most progressive Muslim universities in India – Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia – don’t have a section for women in the mosques on campus.

For the last two years, I have been regularly offering prayers after listening to lectures of different scholars on YouTube. Here, in Jamia, offering prayers is no problem at all because the girls’ common room has prayer mats and Islamic texts available for whoever wishes to use them.   
Sania Hussain, 18, first year BA social work (honours)
Women are the twin halves of men.   
The Prophet’s saying (Hadith), recorded in Sahih Bukhari

(With inputs from M Reyaz and Mubasshir Mushtaq)

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