The Muslim woman has always been situated in the centre of politicised, ideological debates. To many in the West, she is the visual symbol of an inherently misogynistic religion that deprives her of autonomy and self-realisation – she is always “constituted as a figure of subjugation, embedded and controlled by a community” (Crabtree and Husain, 2012:148).
However, in positioning men and women as individuals and as servants of God, the Quran explicitly denies any inherent supremacy of one gender over the other. In Quranic chapter An-Nisaa’, verse 1, God had said:
“O people! Fear your Lord who created you from a single soul, and created from it is mate, and dispersed from both of them many men and women”.
While many do agree on the theological equality of genders, they tend to disagree that both men and women can take up leadership position solely based on the assessment of their merits and capabilities alone. They reasoned that if indeed women could lead, then the Prophet s.a.w. would have appointed them into positions of power.
The problem with this argument is that it failed to take into consideration the cultural norms and historical context of the society at that time. The decision to not populate positions of power was cultural, and not due to the belief that men are inherently superior. This is proven by the many examples in Islamic history that highlighted the important roles played by women.
1. Khadijah r.a.
Khadijah r.a. was a successful businesswoman in her own capacity, and it was her who proposed to Prophet s.a.w. Even after their marriage, she maintained her business, and even used her profits to support the Prophet s.a.w. and his cause, especially during the period of isolation.
2. Ummu Salamah r.a.
The Prophet s.a.w. himself consulted Ummu Salamah r.a. during the incident after the signing of the treaty of Hudaibiyah, when his followers refused to follow his instructions out of protest for signing what they thought to be an unfair treaty. He went back to his tent angry, and confided in Umm Salamah. He heeded her wise advice, and true enough, the people started following what he did. This was not a random advice – it was important and calculated.
Some may still argue that the examples cited above still demonstrate that while women can give advice and take control of a situation, this should be done within the limitations of their roles a mother and a wife. But this is not true, as seen in the case of Nusaybah Binti Ka’ab.
3. Nusaybah Binti Ka’ab
Nusaybah was the warrior who fiercely protected the Prophet s.a.w. in the battle of Uhud. When he was ambushed by enemies, she immediately drew her sword and joined the small group that was shielding him from the attack. The Prophet s.a.w. was very impressed and said:
“Whenever I turned my face to the right and the left, I saw Nusaybah Bint Ka’ab fighting before me.”
It was reported that by the end of the battle she had thirteen injuries on her body, and she spent one year just to heal fully, but even that did not deter her from participating in subsequent battles.
4. Umm Hiram Bint Milhan
The Prophet s.a.w. revealed to her his dream: “Some people among my followers were shown to me as fighters in Allah’s cause (on board a ship) amidst this sea caused me to smile; they were kings on the thrones (or like kings on the thrones).”
Umm Hiram then responded with a request: “O Messenger of Allah, invoke Allah that He makes me one of them”, to which he replied “You will be among the first”.
What is important to highlight was the way in which the Prophet s.a.w. responded to her request to be part of the military expedition. He did not rebuke her, nor did he tell her that a woman’s jihad is at home. Instead, he made earnest prayers for her.
The Hadith on Women as Leaders of Nation
Many of those who reject the permissibility of women as leaders do so in reference of this hadith:
“A nation with a woman ruler will never succeed.”
There has been quite an extensive discussion on this hadith, even amongst traditional scholars. There are those who questioned the credibility of one of the narrators – Abu Bakrah – who was one of those punished for giving false testimony against Aishah r.a. in the case involving another companion, Safwan r.a.
While many scholars are of the opinion that his narrations remain credible, as he had repented and been forgiven by the Prophet s.a.w, other scholars have called for a more contextual understanding of this hadith. They argue that this hadith was narrated in specific reference to the Kingdom of Persia. A Companion recalled that when this was the Prophet’s reaction when news reached him that the Persians had placed the daughter of their former kind Chosroes on the throne. The scholars hence argue that the Prophet was responding to the news and was sharing his prophecy on the kingdom. It was hence not a general prohibition for women to take up positions of leadership. This is the opinion of established scholars such as Muhammad Al-Gazzali, former Syeikh Al-Azhar Dr Muhammad Sayid Tanthawi, and former Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa. This is also the official stand of the Fatwa Council of Egypt (Dar al ifta ), as conveyed by the current Grand Mufti of Egypt, Syeikh Shawki Allam.
There is a need to distinguish between was what said in the texts and the lived realities of the exegetes and scholars, which could have dictated the direction of their interpretations, as seen in the varying interpretations of Quranic verse and hadith we have discussed above.
The classical scholars at that time were more focused to determine women’s function by listing down their rights and duties “according to the various functions society imparted them” (Ramadan, 2009:211) as ‘daughters’, ‘wives’, ‘mothers’ and so on. It is hence important to revisit these well-meaning intentions and attempts of giving them an honourable position or social standing in society through these ‘natural roles’, so that it would now suit the context of today’s women who have taken up roles beyond these assumed ‘natural’ functions.
In fact, there is a more pressing religious need to ensure that no Muslim woman is subjugated to misogynistic discourses and values using Islam as a poor justification to one’s own biases. It is a religious commitment to God to ensure that justice prevails over misogynist worldviews, which would then have consequences on how women are perceived and treated within the Islamic framework.
Shortened from writer’s original article titled “Women in Leadership Positions”.