Answered by Shaykh Hamza Karamali, SunniPath Academy Teacher
Is it permissible for men and women to pray in a room without a barrier between them if they are not mahram of each other if the space is relatively small or is this more an issue of gender adab and scrupulousness? Is it permissible for a man (alone) to lead women in prayer when he is not their mahram? Does it matter if it is one man, two men, or one woman or more than one woman? This situation is common in MSA because we are allotted one room on campus for everyone and many rooms are too small to put a barrier. This question has come up frequently with a wide range of answers so I am confused.
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
1. If a group prayer takes place outside a masjid (such as in an MSA prayer area that is provided to students by the university), then a condition of the group prayer is that the followers either be able to see the imam or to see another follower who can see the imam. As such, if you place a barrier between the brothers and sisters in the room described above, and this barrier prevents all of the women from seeing the imam or any of the brothers who are praying behind the imam, then their prayer would not be valid. Within a masjid, this condition is not necessary for the validity of a group prayer.
2. If all the other conditions of the group prayer are met, the situations described in the question would all result in a valid group prayer. However, if a woman is alone with any number of men (even if more than one), then it will constitute forbidden seclusion with the opposite sex. The prayer in such a case would be technically valid, but the brothers and sisters in question would be sinful by putting themselves into such a situation. Note that there is a difference between “validity” (the domain of the scholars of the outward) and “acceptance” (the domain of the scholars of the inward). A prayer performed validly may not necessarily be accepted by Allah.
3. It is important that the MSA raise awareness amongst the Muslims that lowering the gaze is an Islamic virtue. This virtue has been enshrined in the Qur’an, when Allah commanded us, saying, “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Lo! Allah is aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts …” (Surat al-Nur, 30:31). The command to lower one’s gaze implies a certain decorum that must be observed in male-female interaction. Socializing with the opposite sex and cracking jokes with them run contrary to the spirit of the command to lower one’s gaze. Conversation should be limited to cases where there is a genuine need that could not otherwise be fulfilled. If these rules of behaviour are observed, then there would be nothing wrong with praying in the situation that you have described in the question.
And Allah knows best.