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On the Footsteps of Umm Waraqah

04 November 2023

Umm Waraqah bint 'Abdullāh was a Medinese woman who was very knowledgeable about the Qur'ān (hāfiza); in fact, she was among those who transmitted it from memory before it was put into writing. The Prophet Muhammad referred to her as “the martyr” since she wished to die as such and for this she participated in the Battle of Badr (624 CE). She was appointed by the Prophet Muhammad to lead in prayer the people of her household (the word in the text refers to the residence, and to the neighborhood or village), the extended family, which consisted of men and women. The “people of the house of Umm Waraqah” were so numerous that the Prophet had appointed a muezzin for her to perform the call to the five prayers.

This hadīth, which is undisputed as being classified as good (hasan), has had varying interpretations. Although it is unspecified, many scholars have argued that the charge was to lead the prayer only for the women of Umm Waraqah’s household; others, however, believe that the order was for all relatives and male servants. Indeed, the text gives no indication of the gender of those in the congregation behind Umm Waraqah, but speaks of a generic “people of the house” and has been interpreted by the majority as referring to women. Nevertheless, by ahl* one can also mean all the people of the house, since the term indicates an extended family, a group, a community (e.g., Christians and Jews are called in the Qur'an Ahl al-Kitab, “People of the Book”); moreover, the Prophet did not specify “to the women of his house”.

Those who deny the power of women to lead prayers appeal to the principle of analogy (qiyas*) by bringing up the example of Aisha. They support this because it seems she never led men in prayer even though many were certainly less educated than she in the religious sciences was. Aisha did, however, lead women in the obligatory prayers in the mosque.

by Marisa Iannucci