1979. I’m seven-years-old piled in a hatchback with my three siblings. I hear the gravel crunch under the car’s wheels as it slows down and my father’s voice announces softly “It’s ‘asr (the afternoon prayer) time.” As cars rush by on I-5, I kneel with my family some forty feet off the side of the road, facing toward Mecca. The thin blanket beneath me pretends to cushion the hard pebbles under my shins. Despite the trembling of our car as vehicles whoosh by, it feels peaceful. We stop for no more than ten minutes, but the spiritual interlude is long enough to teach me that Allah is anywhere I am, and I am always home wherever I have a place to pray.
1982. I’m ten-years-old.Every evening in my house, the family pauses chores, homework, television and games to come together for a few minutes and follow my father in the sunset prayer. Sometimes as my father’s forehead touches the floor in the first prostration, I hear the promising clink of coins tumble out of his shirt pocket. My sisters, brother and I impatiently wait for the end of the prayer before we rush to snatch them. My little brother is always the one to grab them and it is only after some time passes that I realize I don’t stand a chance because I am always pray beside my mother and sisters, one row behind my father and brother.
1995. I’m 23-years-old. As a young graduate student alone in New York, I am walking in the busy streets of Midtown late one afternoon. I hear my father’s voice in my mind, “It’s ‘Asr time.” Up ahead I spot a few men heading separately toward a nondescript, narrow building. It looks like one might be wearing a Muslim prayer cap and another sports a full beard. I follow them up the cement steps to the entrance and just narrowly miss the door. I tug at the handle but it won’t open. Knock. Knock. A young South-Asian man opens the door and seems startled by my face. He quickly mumbles, “Uh…no women allowed here,” looking flustered and uncomfortable. In that moment, a slender man in a tweed blazer, hands in his pocket, strides up the steps. He glances at me, unmoved and indifferent, then glances at the man at the door and disappears into the building. The door shuts on me before I can utter a word.
1993. I’m 21-years-old. I am working at the Muslim Youth of North America camp. One night, our heat goes out and about one-hundred teenage girls lug their sleeping bags in the dark to the only building with heat and there we all spend the night on the floor. Dawn approaches, and we wait for a man’s voice to recite the call to prayer. Silence. One of the counselors scuttles over to me, worried: “Amira you are the only staff member here, and there is no man to call and lead the prayer. What do we do?” My father had taught me to perform my daily five prayers no matter what, no matter where.
Within minutes I find myself leading the large group in the sunrise prayer. I feel the weight of this unexpected responsibility; I try to pull Qur’anic verses from my heart to recite and try to project my voice so the girls in the back rows can hear me, all the while reminding myself, “I am here to trust in the Loving Beautiful Divine.” Upon completing the prayer, I turn around to spot one of the campers wiping tears from her eyes. And she isn’t alone. Their counselor approaches me and explains, “They are so overwhelmed. They have never been led by a woman in prayer before!”
2016. I’m 43-years-old. I’m sitting cross-legged in a circle on the worn, green carpet of our community mosque, wrapping up a lecture to a fifteen teenagers on how to connect with the Qur’an. It’s time to pray the sunset prayer and I see that the eldest of the boys in the group naturally moves forward to begin leading all of us in prayer. Meanwhile, I stand beside the girls, fifteen feet behind the boys. I breathe deeply, willing myself to keep my ego in check and concentrate on the Divine. Still, I struggle knowing that I am twenty-five years older than this nineteen-year-old who I taught in Sunday school not two years ago; I am his teacher, and had I been a man, there is no doubt they would have invited me to lead the prayer.
I wonder what is going through these young boys’ minds. What ideas about women and Islam are they internalizing from this moment? A woman may be more knowledgeable, more devout and decades older, yet her anatomy disqualifies her from leading a mixed prayer in the eyes of the majority. It is painful knowing that every other educational space, degree, title, and office is theoretically open to women, but in the area of Islamic leadership, women are kept in the shadows.
The consequence of exclusion is that girls never see themselves as spiritual leaders. I never did until the heat went out in December 1993. It was that morning that it dawned on me just how much our spiritual strength is subordinated to men and boys. Muslim women are often conditioned to negate their spiritual strength when men are present. Muslim men, on the other hand, dismiss women because they are conditioned from childhood to have a blind spot that prevents them from seeing women as spiritual leaders.
Today I am one of a handful of Muslim women chaplains in the country. I started my chaplaincy when I led that prayer twenty-five years ago and now I serve a women’s college. It is the only place where I feel completely whole as a Muslim woman because I don’t have to suffer the glances (apathetic at best and disdainful at worst) of men as they make their way to the front of a mosque, men who know with confidence and certainty that their voices will be heard in the congregational prayer and in the decision-making roles. When I am on campus, I don’t have to automatically defer to a man to lead my community. I bring students together for Friday Jum’ah Prayers, hopefully offering an inspiring message, and a way to connect with the Divine and with their sisters. I try to help these young women navigate the treacherous waters of emerging adulthood, listening to their hurts and successes, counseling them through a world as secular and stressful as college.
2017. I’m 45-years-old. I’m folding up the prayer rugs on yet another wintery Friday afternoon in the college’s Multifaith Center, when Sarah, an always smiling, confident Muslim student, gingerly approaches me. She wrings her hands and stumbles through her words a little. “I wanted to tell you …thatdhikr [melodic remembrance of God] that you do after Friday prayers…? That’s the only thing that that got me through my surgery.” Her few words reassure me that my work has meaning and impact, that I am doing something to weave spirituality into this young woman’s college life in a way that is healing to her body and soul.
I think about what Sarah’s experience would have been if I had been a man. Would she have related to a man and his spiritual leadership in the same way? Would she have felt comfortable coming up to a man to tell him the impact his teaching of dikr had on her life? Is there something women offer in spiritual leadership that men don’t or can’t? How much are we depriving our community when we deprive women of these roles?
While respecting the viewpoint of those who do not believe women should lead mixed-gender congregations in prayer, our communities can do so much more than just grudgingly letting women in the door. Contrary to popular belief, Islamic history is steeped in examples of Muslim women as spiritual leaders. Many Muslim societies around the world arrange their congregations so that women stand on the right and men on the left, which allows both genders to feel as spiritual equals. And seeing a woman speaking at the minbar doesn’t have to feel like a novelty; it can be a normal occurrence as it was in the past.
We can educate ourselves to know that the questions of women-led prayers has been a topic of discussion for centuries. Ibn ‘Arabi asserted that women can lead men in prayer.  Several others added to this discussion, at a minimum permitting women to lead optional nightly prayers.  If that is permissible in the realm of Islamic law, what about a welcoming a to woman offer an ‘Eid sermon, which is optional anyway? Muslim communities who care that both men and women should benefit from the spiritual insights of women will think of new and old ways to welcome women into these roles of spiritual leadership.
My dear readers, study our complex and vibrant intellectual history. Be inspired by it to discuss these issues in our current circumstances just like previous generations. I have written here about women’s leadership in prayer, but I want to emphasize that my efforts are firmly about the worship and the spiritual wellness of our whole Muslim community. For the sake of men and women, girls and boys, commit to do at least one thing to invite females to spiritual leadership in your local community. Sa’diyya Shaikh, “Islamic Law, Sufism, and Gender: Rethinking the Terms of the Debate” in Men in Charge? p. 127 Oneworld Publicaions 2015.  Jonathan A.C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, Oneworld Publications 2014, p. 192-193
Amira J. Quraishi serves Wellesley College as its Muslim Chaplain. She holds Masters Degrees in Middle East Studies from NYU and Religious Studies from University of Pennsylvania. She is one of the co-founders of the Association of Campus Muslim Chaplains.