To What Level Of Political Status Can A Muslim Woman Attain?

There is no text from the Qur’an excluding women from positions of leadership. On the contrary Allah states in Qur’an 9:71 that “The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, pay zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His mercy: For Allah is Exalted in power, Wise.” Here, it is clear that both male and female Muslims are to co-operate to further the progress of their community.

However, there is a hadith reported of the Prophet. It says: “People will not prosper if they choose as their head of State a woman.”

Scholars differ over the interpretation of this hadith. One group consider that it is not permissible for women to rise to the level of leadership when men have been accorded the right, citing Qur’an 4:34 “men are the protectors and maintainers of women…”

Based on this verse they argue that since head of the family is man it does not behove women to hold a position as high as head of State or a judge.

A minority view, however interprets the hadith to mean the exclusion is limited to women as rulers in an Islamic State. It cannot be extended to any other position (Tabari), such as Head of Department, Director, Administrator, Head of a School or Institution etc.

For example if a woman is the most qualified as medical director above all men it is only reasonable to appoint her to lead, rather than appoint someone of less ability which would be disastrous. Imam Abu Hanifa expounded that since the Qur’an indicated that women may serve as witnesses in financial transactions – Qur’an 2:282 (and others) they may also judge on financial and other matters.

The last group see nothing wrong in appointing women as leader of a community or a nation, pointing to the case of the Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) (Qur’an 27:32-35).

Qur’an speaks approvingly of her for the manner in which she consulted her advisors and administered her political role, with high display of leadership decorum as appreciated by Prophet Suleyman himself.

They conclude that there is no Qur’anic objection to a woman ruler. Qur’an 4:34 is considered to refer only to the domestic and matrimonial leadership of the husband, not the headship of all men over all women.

Women at the time of the Prophet () participated actively in political affairs for example by the pledge of allegiance (Bay’a at Aqabah) by a delegation of people from Madinah.

Two women Umm ‘Umara Nusayba and Umm Mani gave their pledge to the Head of the Muslim Community and Head of its State in the same manner as men did (Qur’an 60:12).

Women at the time of the Prophet and the first Caliphs occupied notable positions. Umar Ibn Al-Khattab entrusted the supervision of administrative market affairs to Shaffa bin Abdullah bin Abdu Shams.

Umar used to seek her counsel, pay due regard to her and hold her in high esteem (Al-Isabah). The position occupied by this lady cannot be less than a Ministerial position today, such as Minister of Commerce and Industry or Trade etc.

Umm Warage was a lady that the Prophet () used to visit. The Prophet () allowed her to pray at home and to lead her staff, male and female, in prayer (Abu Dawood). It was she who requested the Prophet to allow her to join him in the Battle of Badr to administer nursing care to the wounded where perhaps Allah might grant her martyrdom (Al-Isabah).

Women played a very significant role in political stability at the time of the Prophet and the early caliphs. An example is the advisory role played by Umm Salama during the Treaty of Hudaibiya, when the Prophet was facing rebelliousness on the part of his followers. He followed her advice and the crisis was overcome peacefully. Her role at that time was no less than the position of a Special Adviser to the President.

Uthman is recorded as having upbraided one of his aides for attempting to prevent his (Uthman’s) wife from speaking about political affairs. He said, “Let her speak for she is more sincere in her advice than you are!”

Women are to be consulted in matters concerning the community. This was the practice of the early Caliphs when Aisha and other prominent women were among those consulted.

Therefore on the hadith prohibiting woman from leadership role; the last group interpret it in two ways.

(a) that the Prophet deliberately mentioned it to that nation because of the bad political relation between Islamic community and the Persians. Following the death of their Emperor they appointed his daughter as the head of State. Thus, judging the situation in the context of Islam where the head of state is not just a figurehead there was bound to be problem in the political administration of that nation. In other words the reference was to a particular event in a particular context and not a general or legal prohibition.

(b) That the prohibition can only be applied where the system of government is Islamic. An Islamic leader is not just the spokesman of his people, but he has duties and responsibilities to them, which include leading prayers and leading the army in the battlefield. Prayers are such that women cannot be in front of men. And even in the most ‘liberated’ western societies, one does not see women with so militaristic a mentality that they wish to command armies. In Islam, the position of leadership of the community is not a prize that people fight for, it is a burden and a responsibility which is bestowed on the most fitting person by the people.

However, close observation of the modern day political system reveals that the Head of State is not necessarily the one to lead the army since modern warfare requires experts and technical skills which the Head of State may lack.

Moreover an Imam may be appointed to lead the prayers. Thus the roles of Government are shared among capable hands and the functions of the Head of State, even of an Islamic State, are not necessarily the same today as they were at the time of the first Caliphs. Women assumed leadership status as in the case of the following.

(a) Baghdad Khatun bint an-Nuwan Chuban (d. 736/1335): She ruled over the Mamluks and rendered judgements.
(b) Tandu bint Husayn (d. 822/1419): She became ruler of Baghdad after her husband was killed in 814/1411.
(c) In Morocco, Zaynab an Naf Zawiyya, the wife of the ruler of the Almoravids whose dominion extended from North Africa to Spain, is described as “al-qa’imatu bi mulkiha”, the one in charge of her husband’s domain. It is reported that she exercised full authority in all matters of State.
(d) Ibn Battuta during his travels in the 14th Century reports his visit to the Maldive islands where he found a woman, Khadija bint ‘Umar al-Bengali, ruling: “One of the strange things about these islands is that their ruler is a woman, Khadija. Sovereignty belonged to her grandfather, then to her father and after his death, her brother, who was a minor. When he was deposed and put to death some years later, none of the royal house remained but Khadija and her two younger sisters, so they raised Khadija to the throne.”
(e) Ghaziyya (d. 655/1257): She was one of the daughters of the Ayyubid Sultan, al-Kamil, and was married to the prince of Hama. After her husband’s death, she ruled in the name of her son. She is described by adh-Dhahabi as pious and modest.
(f) Turkan Khatun (487/1094): She was a descendant of Afrasyab and had 10,000 horsemen in her service. She conducted the affairs of State after the death of Malik Shah and led the troops in battle.
(g) In the Malay Archipelago in the 17 Century there were a number of women who succeeded to the thrones of Patani and Acheh, and other Sultanates. In recent times, there have been three Muslim countries with women in leadership positions – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey.
Hassan al-Turabi concludes on this matter by saying “It was unusual for a woman to be Head of State, but simply that: unusual, not shocking.” Thus, we have had it in the past and it is not impossible to have it again.