On January 26, Jamida Beevi created history by becoming the first Indian Muslim woman to lead the Friday prayer for a mixed-gender congregation at a public place. The 34-year-old led around 30 men and women in namaaz inside a hall at Vandoor village in Kerala’s Malappuram district.

The person who leads namaaz is called imam and, traditionally, he is a man, unless it is an all-woman congregation. The first woman to break this tradition, in recent memory at least, was Amina Wadud, an American professor of religion and philosophy, who led the Friday prayer in New York in 2005.

But while Wadud was hailed as a revolutionary, Beevi has not received much support. One likely reason is that she belongs to the Khuran Sunnath Society, a small group in Kerala claiming to work for reforming the Muslim community. Its members follow only the Quran and proscribe Hadith, the reported sayings of Prophet Muhammad, holding that they were written to malign him. This is anathema to the majority of Muslims for whom Hadith, alongside the Quran, are central to the Islamic doctrine. In Kerala, like in most of the world, Muslims predominantly follow Sunni Islam.

The Khuran Sunnath Society was founded to propagate the teachings of PK Mohammed Abul Hassan, popularly known as Chekannur Moulavi, after he disappeared on July 29, 1993. In September 2010, a Central Bureau of Investigation court hearing the case concluded that Hassan had been murdered after being abducted and his body disposed of. The court convicted one person of the murder and acquitted eight others.

The Muslim clergy, from across sects and schools, had denounced Hassan as an apostate.

The society split vertically last year following a dispute over Hassan’s legacy – one section of its leaders wanted “timely changes” in the group’s doctrine but others, including Beevi, argued that Hassan’s teachings were sacrosanct and should not be tampered with. Beevi is now the state general secretary of her faction.

Jamida Beevi leading the Friday prayer on Friday. Photo by special arrangement

Raising questions

Beevi was born in 1984, the youngest of 13 children of an Indian Army solider and a housewife, in Konni, Pathanamthitta district. In 1999, she enrolled in Jamia Nadwiyya Arabic College in Malappuram to study Arabic. The college is run by the Salafist organisation Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen.

“I was an inquisitive student,” Beevi said, speaking at her rented home in Kappad, Kozhikode district. “I used to trouble my teachers with questions on Islam. My intention was to gain knowledge, but teachers misunderstood and called me a rebel. At times, teachers asked me not to enter the class as punishment. But I was adamant to know the truth. And my quest continues even now.”

Immediately after she completed her studies, Beevi said, her family forced her to marry a man chosen by them. “I soon realised I could not live with him,” she said. “I wanted a divorce, but everyone in my family objected to that. They told me that Allah doesn’t like divorce.”

She did get a divorce, but only in 2016, after 13 years of marriage and two children.

After her marriage, Beevi had moved to Thiruvananthapuram, where, to earn an income, she took to teaching Arabic to schoolchildren. “I also organised Quran classes free of cost,” she said. “During a session for women in 2014, I said the Quran prohibited recital of the word ‘Amen’ during prayers. Amen is not an Arabic word. It means ‘so be it’. That made orthodox religious clerics angry. They called me an apostate and began to target me. They even tried to assault my daughter.”

By 2016, Beevi claimed, the “hate campaign” became so intense she left Thiruvananthapuram and moved to Kozhikode. She joined the Khuran Sunnath Society the same year and quickly become an influential figure.

Jamida Beevi leading the Friday prayer. Photo by special arrangement

Facing threats

The decision to organise a Friday prayer led by a woman was taken on January 23 at the state committee meeting of her faction of the Khuran Sunnath Society.

“We wanted to spread the message that Islam never prohibited women from leading prayers,” Beevi said. “We have decided to continue this practice.”

Beevi hopes her decision “will inspire more Muslim women to preside over prayers”.

Though Beevi says she has been receiving death threats since she began speaking against the orthodox Muslim clergy and religious and political organisations, the threats have increased since she led the prayer. She alleged that some clerics are instigating people to kill her. “Plenty of messages have been circulating on social media alleging that I am a kafir, a non-believer,” she said. “Last week, someone sent me an image with my head fixed to a dead body. I see it as a warning.”

Beevi, however, insists that the threats will not break her resolve. “I am not afraid of death,” she said. “I am ready to die for the cause.”