Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Occasionally when I am at my campus musalla, a couple of sisters will want to pray jama3a prayer for dhuhr or asr when there are no brothers around to lead the prayer, and I don’t know what to do because I’ve been told by other sisters … that hanafi women do not pray jama3a behind a female imam. But since I’ve attended an all girls high school my entire life I became used to praying behind sisters leading prayers and I feel singled out if I refuse to join their jama3a.
It is important to distinguish sometimes between theory and how it is put into practice. Theory (such as the madhhab one follows and its rulings) should not be contradicted by one’s practice, but the latter sometimes needs to be characterized by wisdom, without compromising one’s principles and beliefs.
As such, the theory is that in the Hanafi school, it is prohibitively disliked (makruh tahriman) for women to pray in congregation on their own. The reasons, if one thinks about it, are obvious: it would lead women to think that doing so is superior (because it is like what the men do, and they’ll have heard about the reward for praying in congregation, etc), while the reality is that this is difficult for women, especially women with families and children and limited mobility; also, it is not established to have been the practice of the female Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).
HOWEVER, wisdom dictates that a Muslim act in a way that doesn’t cause fitna or confuse others. Many sisters who grow up in the West, or who are of Arab (usually originally Shafi`i) backgrounds are accustomed to praying in congregation, and don’t understand WHY someone wouldn’t. Even here in Jordan, my wife’s tajwid teacher, who is Shafi`i, was very confused why my wife would not pray with her. Alhamdulillah, my wife was able to explain that this was the ruling of the Hanafi school, and told her some of the reasoning. The teacher didn’t believe her at first!
Now, it takes time for people to understand things like madhhabs, differences of opinion, and so on. So if you think that people will not understand why you don’t pray with them in congregation, then you can do so, as long as you fulfill the main conditions and integrals of the Shafi`i tahara and salat, such as reciting behind the imam, etc, which can be quickly picked up from the Maqasid, for example. This is what I have heard several Hanafi ulema of Damascus advise women to do If they are in a big gathering of women where their holding back from praying in congregation may cause confusion.] Often, however, being confident about what one follows and believes, and being able to explain it to others with good akhlaq in a loving, non-confrontational way leaves people not only understanding why you are being different, but also seeing the beauty of Islam, where there is room for people to legitimately differ in actions but be united in goal and in their love for one another.