In order to evaluate the authorial enterprise behind the fitnah traditions, we need to examine the totality of the evidence including the rhetorical dynamics of these traditions along with their functions and potentialities. For instance, among the traditions that some jurists frequently cite in support of their argument for the exclusion of women is one which was reportedly transmitted by Ibn Umar. In this report, Ibn Umar narrates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "Do not forbid your women from going to the mosque, but praying at home is better for them." A version of this report purportedly transmitted from the Prophet by Abd Allah b. Umar, becomes more extreme. It states: "The prayer of a woman in her room is better than her prayer house and her prayer in a dark closet is better than her prayer in her room" [Fath al-Bari]. The same message is then conveyed but this time through the involvement of a woman who reportedly goes to the Prophet to tell him that she loves to pray in the mosque with him. To this, the Prophet responds that he knows that she loves to pray with him but gives her the same advice as above. As a result, the woman went home and prayed in the most isolated and the darkest area of her house until she died [Musnad]. The least one can observe about these traditions are their remarkable vindictiveness — the more removed and inaccessible a woman is, the better, and even the love of the Prophet cannot change that fact.

These reports coexist with other traditions that assert that the mosque of the Prophet was full of rows of women lining up for prayers. At times, men arriving late for prayer would pray behind women — men would be in the front rows followed by women, followed by rows of men who arrived late. Yet, the prayers of the men who prayed behind the women were considered valid [Sahnun, al-Mudawwanah]. These traditions also note that after completing his prayers the Prophet would delay a bit, presumably, to give the last rows an opportunity to leave the mosque [Fath al-Bari]. Furthermore, there are reports that some women would stay for long periods and even sleep in the mosque [Fath al-Bari]. Interestingly, the early jurist Malik b. Anas (d. 179/796) held that it is preferable for a woman to perform itikaf prayers in the mosque and not in her home [Sahnun, al-Mudawwanah]. In addition, several reports stated that women attended itikaf prayer with the Prophet in the mosque, and did so during menstruation [Fath al-Bari].

Of course, reports of widespread attendance of prayers by women in mosques create a rather untenable situation. One would have to conclude that all these women ignored the Prophet's advice to pray in dark closets. In response to this tension, we find reports that try to rehabilitate the situation, somewhat. For instance, a report attributed to Aishah asserts that Aishah said, "If the Prophet would have seen what women are doing in mosques today, he would have prohibited them [from attending the mosque] as the women of Israel were prohibited [presumably, by Jewish law]" [Fath al-Bari] The importance of this tradition is in the fact that it is attributed to Aishah, who led an active political life and continued to pray and teach in the mosque in Medina after the Prophet's death. We are not told what it is that women did in mosques after the death of the Prophet and why the law of the Israelites is relevant. Naturally, the mention of the Israelites creates a connection with and validates the traditions regarding fitnah, since according to these traditions, women were the first cause of trials and tribulations for the Israelites. Importantly, in the historical context of the Islamic traditions, the Israelites were seen as the prime example of a people who violated God's covenant, and who were banished and exiled in the earth as punishment. Therefore, the symbolism drawn is quite compelling; women might bring the same unfortunate fate to the Muslim nation unless adequately restrained. Another example of a rehabilitation tradition is one in which Abu Hurayrah narrates that the Prophet said, "As for men, the best rows [in prayer] are the front rows, and the worst rows are the last rows. As for women, the best rows [ in prayer] are the last rows, and the worst rows are the front rows. [Nasai]" Interestingly, the classical jurists attempt to rationalize this tradition by arguing that it means that there should be a sufficient distance between the last row of men and the first row of women. Nonetheless, this rationalization is not successful in concealing the basic incoherence of the report. In order for the report to make sense, we must read it to mean that men who come to congregational prayers early are the best because they will form the front rows. The worst women, however, are those who come early to congregational prayer, since they will form the front rows, and the best women are those who come late because they will form the last rows. Therefore, if a woman wants to be among the best, she will have to delay as long as possible before going to pray in the mosque — after all, she wants to make sure that she does not end up in the front rows. Assume that all women think in a similar fashion, what happens then? All women make a mad rush to the mosque in the last minute possible, and then fight it out for who ends up in the last rows?

The tradition is logically absurd, and, yet many jurists, rely on it in arguing in support of the doctrine of fitnah. The best female rows are the last rows because they are the furthest away from men, and the least capable of causing fitnah. Confronted with the logical absurdity of the tradition some jurists respond that that is exactly why women should pray at home. But then we come full circle, why did so many women at the time of the Prophet not understand this simple and straightforward point, which invites them all to pray in dark closets instead of bothering with going to the mosque!

Compiled From:
"Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women" - Khaled Abou El Fadl