Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, was scheduled to lead a two-hour service Friday at Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Anglican church in Manhattan.
The event was meant to draw attention to the "second-class status" of women in Muslim spiritual life and Muslim life in general, said Asra Q. Nomani, an author and former Wall Street Journal reporter who is the lead organizer of the prayer.
"We are taking actions that no one else would have dared to think about before," she told The New York Times for Friday editions. "Nobody cared that we didn't have a place in the faith."
"This event is not some sort of a protest event," said Ahmed Nassef, whose group Muslim WakeUp! is helping to organize the service. "It was always meant as a spiritual worship opportunity, and it's doing so in an equal space for women and men."
Muslim leaders denounced the plans.
The sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque, one of the top world's Islamic institutions, said Islam permits women to lead other women in prayer but not a congregation with men in it.
"A woman's body is private," Sheik Sayed Tantawi wrote in a column in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram in which he was asked about Wadud's planned prayer. "When she leads men in prayer, in this case, it's not proper for them to look at the woman whose body is in front of them. Even if they see it in their daily life, it shouldn't be in situations of worship, where the main point is humility and modesty."
Abdul-Aziz al-Khayyat, Jordan's minister of religious affairs and a Muslim cleric, also objected to a woman leading mixed prayers, saying it would be forbidden under Islamic doctrine.
"Prophet Muhammad and all the scholars did not allow the woman to lead ... mixed congregations, not even to allow her to pray at the side of the man," al-Khayyat said. "She can only pray behind him."
He added that he believed this was the first such incident in the history of Islam and noted the prayers of men who participated in a mixed prayer meeting would not count. Some Islamic scholars have said they were aware of a few other mixed-gender prayer meetings led by women, mostly in the West, but they are rare.
Nassef, of Muslim WakeUp!, said the service isn't meant to tell other Muslims how to worship. "We respect their choice on how to worship. We just need to be open to new ideas," he said.
Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, said the service goes against the religion's traditions.
"It's a time when people can get away with anything," Haddad said. "When people have a breakdown of traditional leadership, largely because the U.S. government has delegitimized the Muslim leadership in America, American Muslims are searching for new leaders more able to address their daily needs.
"People in America think they are going to be the vanguards of change," Haddad said. "But for Arab Muslims in the Middle East, American Muslims continue to be viewed on the margins of the faith."
Muslim leaders in New York were also wary of the prayer service.
"My concern is a backlash," Aisha al-Adawiya, head of New York-based Women in Islam, told the Times. "This kind of change has to come from within the community. It's being driven from outside."
Three New York mosques refused to host the service, Nomani said. It was moved to Synod House after a site that had earlier been selected for the service, an art gallery in downtown Manhattan, received a bomb threat.
Some critics have accused Nomani of using the event to publicize a book she has written about women and Islam.
Omid Safi, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Colgate University, said the service may at least spark discussion on the issue.
"It is a difficult task for the community," Safi said. "But my strong hope is that this would be seen as something that would not divide the community, but that if people are embracing or rejecting it, they would have the opportunity to question the status of women's participation in our mosques."