Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the service she was leading was "only one aspect of emphasising the belief in the reality that women are equal" under Islam.
"We claim that we have primordial rights ... to acknowledge the reciprocal rights of women and men to attain moral excellence (in Islam)," Wadud said, addressing a congregation of 80 to 100 men and women attending the service at Synod House at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, an Anglican church in Manhattan.
The service drew protests and has stirred controversy internationally because many Muslims say that only men are empowered to lead other men in prayer.
Nasir al-Husaini, Aljazeera's correspondent in New York reported around 90 male and female non-Arab Muslims attended the prayers. Fewer than 10 people protested outside the church, he said.
To break religious traditions, female worshippers lined up in the first rows, saying they had broken what they have called "limitations imposed by extremists against women in the mosques treating their spiritual rights unjustly".
Many of the women in attendance were modestly dressed and, in accordance with Islamic tradition, covered their hair with the hijab, or headscarf. But others shunned the scarf and wore form-fitting jeans or pants.
While women played a pivotal role in spreading Islam during the Prophet Muhammad's time, Wadud said, they were marginalised by men who years later "sat together in their privileged places" to collect the chapters that would become the Quran.
"Women were not allowed to (have) input in the basic paradigms of what it means to be a Muslim," she said, adding that while the Quran repeatedly puts men and women on an equal footing, men quickly distorted its teachings to leave women with no role other than to "please them as sexual partners".
Dismissing criticism by some that the event was little more than feminist rabble-rousing, Asra Nomani, an author and former Wall Street Journal reporter who is the lead organiser of the prayer ceremony, said it was about drawing attention to the inequality Muslim women worldwide face in all aspects of their lives.
"We will no longer accept the back door or the shadows," Nomani said. "Today, we are ushering Islam into the 21st century, reclaiming the voice that the Prophet gave us 1400 years ago."
"Today, we are ushering Islam into the 21st century, reclaiming the voice that the Prophet gave us 1400 years ago"
Asra Nomani, an Author
She introduced a 10-item list she dubbed An Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque, which included the right to enter through the front door and to be prayer leaders.
For many critics, that message, its manner of delivery and its forum were seen as an affront to mainstream Islam that had reached blasphemous levels.
It is an argument that has also arisen in Christianity and Judaism, where women were until recently barred from being ordained.
Particularly controversial was Wadud's periodic substitution of the Arabic word for God, Allah, with the pronouns he, she and it, arguing that God's omnipresence defied gender definition.
"This woman is tarnishing the whole Islamic faith," said Mohammed Nussrah, a Brooklyn native whose family originally hails from Algeria. He screamed that Wadud does not speak for pious, mainstream Muslims.
"All she is doing is twisting the interpretation of Islam to suit her needs. This is blasphemy, pure and simple," said Nussrah, a member of a local Muslim group named the Islamic Thinkers. "If this was an Islamic state, this woman would be hanged."
Wadud's actions have drawn
criticism from many Muslims
It was not clear whether Wadud heard their comments or saw the placards they were carrying, one of which read: "Mixed-Gender Prayers Today, Hellfire Tomorrow."
Wadud, describing herself as "a lonely academic" more comfortable writing a book than dealing with the limelight, made it clear she would not accept interviews after the event.
Opposition was fierce before the day of the service.
The prayer had been scheduled at an art gallery in downtown Manhattan, but that venue was dropped after a bomb threat was received, said Nomani. Three New York mosques also refused to host the service.
Little was orthodox about this Friday prayer - the most important of the week for Muslims.
"All she is doing is twisting the interpretation of Islam to suit her needs. This is blasphemy, pure and simple"
Mohammed Nussrah, member of Muslim group Islamic Thinkers
The call to prayer (adhan) was led by an American Muslim of Egyptian descent, Suehyla el-Attar, who spoke in accented Arabic and did not wear the traditional headscarf.
El-Attar told Aljazeera she had learned the principles of the adhan from her father who used to say the adhan when they lived in Egypt.
Many in attendance said they found the service inspiring.
"This is important. It's time for us to take our place in the mosques," said Nadwa al-Dawari, who moved to the United States from Yemen. "But I didn't like that she referred to God as 'he,' 'she' and 'it.' That's a bit much."
"It's about time," said her friend, Hana Ahary, a Yemeni-American born in the Untied States. "When the Wahhabis or the Sunnis or the Shia men get together, it's seen as normal. But when you have a bunch of women taking a stand, it's like they see us as lesbians."
Organisers said the service was an attempt to stretch traditional interpretations of Islam to give greater voice to women while affording American Muslims a voice that reflects the needs of the current generation.
"This is about unity, about multiple interpretations of faith in a community where our mosques have failed us," said Ahmed Nassef, whose Muslim WakeUp! group helped organise the service.
That failure, argues Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, is largely a result of a political climate in which Islam has become increasingly suspect.
Most Muslims believe women are
not allowed to lead mixed prayer
But even as American Muslims search for new leaders after "the US government has delegitimised the Muslim leadership in America," their efforts are unlikely to win support abroad.
"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."
The shaikh of Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque, the Islamic world's leading Sunni Muslim institution, said Islam permits women to lead other women in prayer, but not a congregation with men in it.
"A woman's body is private", Shaikh Sayyid Tantawi wrote in a column in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram in which he was asked about Wadud's planned prayer.
"A woman's body is private, 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"
Shaikh Sayyid Tantawi,
Al-Azhar mosque, Cairo
"When she leads men in prayer, in this case, it is 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 should not be in situations of worship, where the main point is humility and modesty."
But not everyone among Muslim scholars agreed.
"The Quran itself does not address the issue of who leads prayer," said Khaled Abou Al Fadl, am Islamic jurist and professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The Prophet said the most learned should lead."
Calling Wadud's action a "counter-jihad" on behalf of moderate
Muslims, Abou El Fadl said: "It is my sincere belief that she is not committing a sin, but upholding the true teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him."
He noted that women routinely lead mixed Muslim
congregations in China, but that such gatherings were rare in the West.
Organisers of the service said they had now achieved a "historic victory" and were ready to "invade" every city and town in America.
Critics say Nomani is using this event to publicise a book she has written about women and Islam. And, even among some moderate US-based clerics, the concern is that this service was driven by ulterior motives.
"When we said women should not be imams, it's not because they are less worthy or unequal to men, but because they have different, equally important, roles in society," said Imam Husham al-Husainy of the Karbalaa Islamic Center in Dearborn, Michigan. The daughter of an early Islamic caliph, for example, is credited with safeguarding the writings later collected into the Quran.
"When we said women should not be imams, it's not because they are less worthy or unequal to men, but because they have different, equally important, roles in society"
Imam Husham al-Husainy, Karbalaa Islamic Centre, Michigan
"We have plenty of examples of influential women such as the Prophet's wife, Khadija. She and the others were holy women, too. But you don't see a female pope, do you?" al-Husainy said."This is nothing more than an attempt to divide by outsiders."