Nowadays, most mosques in Muslim societies are exclusively for men, and it is not considered proper for women to be part of the congregational prayers or any other activity in the mosque. Just because the majority takes this view, however, does not mean that it is the correct one. Let us investigate the ruling of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in this regard who was directly inspired by Allah, and is the best guide for us.
The Prophet ﷺ permitted women to go to the mosques in unambiguous terms. He informed his companions, “When your wife seeks permission to go to the mosque, do not stop her.” (Bukhari) He further said, “Do not keep the female slaves of Allah from the mosques of Allah, but they are to go out without perfume.” (Abu Dawud) Hence, women have been permitted to visit the mosques in Islam; they should, however, dress appropriately and not wear perfume while going to the mosque.
The Prophet ﷺ encouraged the women to pray at home, but he never placed any restriction on them to offer their prayers at home all the time. In fact, the Prophet ﷺ even permitted the women to go to the mosques at night for the Isha and Fajr prayers. He instructed the men, “If your women ask permission to go to the mosque at night, allow them.” (Bukhari) It must be noted that someone’s personal opinion in this matter holds no value given the Prophet’s ﷺ permission; some people try to justify confining women to their homes at all times, but such arguments are totally meaningless because the Prophet ﷺ has decided the matter already. Consider the following hadith as reported in Muslim:
Abdullah bin Umar said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say, ‘Do not prevent your women from going to the mosque if they ask you for permission.’” Bilal bin Abdullah said: “By Allah, we will certainly prevent them.” Abdullah turned to him and rebuked him harshly in a manner that I [the sub-narrator] had never heard, and he said: “I narrate to you from the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and you say, ‘By Allah, we will certainly prevent them!’” (Muslim)
According to a different version of this hadith, when Ibn Umar stated the permissibility of women going to the mosque at night, his son objected, saying, “Then that will lead to mischief and suspicion.” At this, Ibn Umar struck him on the chest and said, “I narrate to you from the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and you say no!” (Muslim) Hence, preventing women from going to the mosques because some people think it will lead to immorality is totally senseless.
During the time of the Prophet ﷺ, Masjid Al-Nabawi was not partitioned, and the men and women prayed in the same hall, with men in the front rows and women in the back ones. It was to avoid their intermingling that the Prophet ﷺ declared, “The best rows for men are at the front, and the worst are at the back; and the best rows for women are at the back, and the worst are at the front.” (Muslim) Moreover, to avoid any possible trouble or discomfort for the women, the Prophet ﷺ used to ensure that the women had the opportunity to leave the mosque before the men made their way out, as narrated by Umm Salama: “In the lifetime of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, the women used to get up when they finished their compulsory salat with taslim. The Prophet ﷺ and the men would stay at their places for as long as Allah willed. When the Prophet ﷺ got up, the men would then get up.” (Bukhari)
The Prophet ﷺ facilitated the women praying in the mosque in other ways too. He once consulted Ibn Umar and asked, “Why don’t we leave this door for the women?” Ibn Umar says he never again entered or exited Masjid Al-Nabawi through that door. (Abu Dawud)
Moreover, the Prophet ﷺ had the utmost regard for the women who brought their little children to the mosque. He said, “Whenever I stand for salat, I want to prolong it, but on hearing the cries of a child, I would shorten it as I dislike to put its mother in trouble.” (Bukhari) Hence, rather than asking mothers not to pray at the mosque, or not to bring their little ones along, the Prophet ﷺ would actually alter the length of his qiyam to ease the mothers praying at the mosque.
During the Prophet’s ﷺ time, the women not only offered their obligatory prayers at the mosque, but also sometimes the voluntary ones, such as tarawih and the eclipse prayer (Salat al-Kusoof). Some of the women, in fact, used to pray nawafil at the mosque for very long periods of time. Once, the Prophet ﷺ entered the mosque and saw a rope tied between two pillars. When he asked about it, he was informed, “Messenger of Allah ﷺ, this is for Hamnah bint Jahsh. When she prays and becomes tired, she holds on to it [for support].” So the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “Let her pray as much as she can, and when she gets tired, let her sit down.” (Abu Dawud)
The Prophet ﷺ stipulated that women should offer the Eid prayer along with men at the prayer venue. Once, when the Eid sermon was not audible to women due to the large number of rows ahead of them, the Prophet ﷺ went towards the women and preached to them separately, as Jabir bin Abdullah narrates, “When the Prophet of Allah ﷺ finished [the khutba], he went to the women and preached to them. While he was leaning on Bilal’s hand, Bilal was spreading his garment and the ladies were putting alms in it.” (Bukhari) According to a sub-narrator of this hadith, Ata, it is compulsory for the Imam to do what the Prophet ﷺ did in similar circumstances.
Women performed other activities too in the mosque during the time of the Prophet ﷺ, and he encouraged them. For example, the wives of the Prophet ﷺ used to observe Itikaf in the mosque, and Rufayda Al-Aslamiyah set up a medical tent right next to Masjid Al-Nabawi where she used to treat the sick and the injured. Today, women can conduct many productive activities at the mosque such as tutoring how to read and write, imparting knowledge, working for charitable and welfare causes, and teaching valuable skills and crafts, in addition to providing nursing facilities like Rufayda (RA) generously did. We must always bear in mind the command of the Prophet ﷺ: “The women should participate in the good deeds and in the religious gatherings of the believers.” (Bukhari)
It is thus unfortunate that most mosques today are all-male premises, which has not only deprived women from conveniently praying in congregation, but has prevented them from conducting useful activities for the advancement of the society. This has also diminished opportunities for women in most Muslim societies to grow spiritually and intellectually. Most importantly, it goes against the established practice of the Prophet ﷺ and defies his command to keep mosques open to women.