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Women in Society: Political Participation

by Muslim Women's League
September 1995

Social responsibility in Islam is derived from the Quranic verse which states: "And [as for] the believers, both men and women - they are friends and protectors of one another: they [all] enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and are constant in prayer, and render the purifying dues, and pay heed unto God and His apostle. It is they upon whom God will bestow His grace: verily, God is almighty, wise." (Quran 9:71). This verse shows that women and men are to work together in the religious realm (the reference to prayer), in the social realm (rendering purifying dues, presumably to help the needy), and in the political and educational realm (the reference to heeding God and His apostle -- one must understand what God commands and have a voice in society to heed God’s teachings). The references in the verse to the activities required, e.g. enjoining the right, prayer, etc. show that both women and men are to take an active role in society rather than merely a passive one.

Political involvement is a means to fulfill one’s obligations to society. Involvement in the political system can take many forms, from voting in elections, to holding a position as a legislator or a judge, to being a head of state. Islamic history provides precedents for each of these roles for women.

Women's Participation in the Bai'ah

The leader of an Islamic state is confirmed by the people through a process known as bai’ah; a symbolic contract between the leader and the people wherein the leader promises to obey Islamic law and the people, in exchange, promise their allegiance. Iqbal, Justice Javid, "The Concept of State in Islam" State, Politics, and Islam (ed. Mumtaz Ahmed, American Trust Publications 1986, p. 38). In essence, bai’ah is the election of a leader, for without the bai’ah the purported leader has no legitimacy and thus cannot act as the head of state. M.F. Osman, Human Rights Between Islamic Sharia and Western Legal Thought, Dar al Shuruq, 1982, p. 110 (citing Abdelwahab Khallaf’s Political Sharia). Ibn Taymiya in his work Minhaj al Sunna stresses the requirement of bai’ah by the people for a leader to be legitimate. Ibn Taymiya discusses the occurrence where Abu Bakr nominated Umar ibn al Khattab to succeed him as caliph. Ibn Taymiya stated that Umar became the caliph only when he received the bai’ah from the people. Ibn Taymiya further stated that if Umar had not received the bai’ah, he would not have become the leader, despite his nomination by Abu Bakr M.F. Osman, Human Rights Between Islamic Sharia and Western Legal Thought, Dar al Shuruq, 1982, p. 111.

In early Islam women were included in the giving of the bai’ah. Prophet Muhammad received the bai’ah from the people. The Quran addresses the issue of women giving the bai’ah to Prophet Muhammad and God tells Muhammad to accept the pledge of the women. "O Prophet! Whenever believing women come unto thee to pledge their allegiance to thee...then accept their pledge of allegiance." (Quran 60:12). In 645 A.D. (23 A.H.) Umar, the second head of state after the death of Prophet Muhammad, convened a group to determine his successor. One of the group, Abdul Rahman, went to the people to consult with them as to who should be the next leader. Abdul Rahman consulted both women and men, thus women had a say in who would be their leader. Through this process Uthman was selected to succeed Umar. Iqbal, Justice Javid, "The Concept of State in Islam" State, Politics, and Islam (ed. Mumtaz Ahmed, American Trust Publications 1986, p. 43).

Women and Shura

In addition to participation in the electoral process, women have also been involved in political activities. These activities appear to be sanctioned by Islamic law. In Islam, community decisions must be made through a process of consultation (shura). The Quran, in describing the qualifications of true believers, states "...and whose rule in all matters of common concern is consultation among themselves." (Quran 42:38). Muhammad Asad argues that this verse reaches into all aspects of political life and that to fulfill the requirements of this verse, a legislative assembly should be formed. Muhammad Asad, The Principles of State and Government in Islam, Dar Al-Andalus, 1980, pp. 44-45. He further argues that the verse refers to the entire community; therefore, the legislative assembly must be representative of the entire community, women and men and that to achieve true representation, the members of the legislative assembly must be elected through free elections with wide suffrage, including both women and men. Muhammad Asad, The Principles of State and Government in Islam, Dar Al-Andalus, 1980, pp. 45.

Women as Judges

The traditional Islamic scholar Ibn Hazm was of the opinion that women could be judges in all cases. (Ibn Hazm, Al-Muhalla bil Athar, vol. 8 Dar Al-Kutub Al-Ilmiya, 1988, p. 528). Ibn Hazm cites the verse: "Behold, God bids you to deliver all that you have been entrusted with unto those who are entitled thereto, and whenever you judge between people, to judge with justice. Verily, most excellent is what God exhorts you to do: verily, God is all-hearing, all-seeing!" (Quran 4:58) and argues that this verse is addressed to both men and women and that there is no reason to discriminate between a man or woman (or a free person or a slave) as to who can judge between people. (Ibn Hazm, Al-Muhalla bil Athar, vol. 8 Dar Al-Kutub Al-Ilmiya, 1988, p. 528). Likewise, Imam al -Tabari believed that women could be judges in all cases. (M.H. Sherif, The Muslim Woman Between the Truth of Sharia and the Fallacy of Falsification, Dar al Marifa al Jamiyya, 1987, p. 142). Imam Abu Hanifa believed that women could be judges on issues related to family law. (Ibn Hazm, Al-Muhalla bil Athar, vol. 8, Dar Al-Kutub Al-Ilmiya, 1988, p. 527). In addition, Umar, the second head of state after the death of Prophet Mohammad, appointed a woman named Al Shafa bint Abdullah ibn abd Shams as the manager over the market of Medina. (Ibn Hazm, Al-Muhalla bil Athar, vol. 8 Dar Al-Kitab Al-Ilmiya 1988, p.527).

Traditionally, an aspect of leadership in Islam is the ability of the leader to lead the Muslims in prayer, i.e. act as the imam. (Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 32). Some argue that women cannot hold positions of leadership because women cannot lead men in prayer. (Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 32). However, this argument requires two assumptions which may be invalid. First, one must assume that the leader himself or herself is obligated to lead prayer. Second, one must assume that women cannot lead men in prayer.

Women as Imams

The word imam as used in the Quran means a source of guidance (e.g. Quran 2:124). The meaning is not limited only to prayer. Thus, the leader should guide the people along the path of Islam. In other words, the role of the leader is to follow the teachings of Islam and to act as a role model. (M.F. Osman, "The Contract for the Appointment of the Head of an Islamic State", State, Politics, and Islam, ed. Mumtaz Ahmed, 1986, p. 56). Leading prayer is not a necessary criterion for leadership, although it may be symbolically desirable. The leader himself or herself need not actually lead prayer. The leader can delegate this function to another. Prophet Muhammad, on two occasions, assigned Ibn Umm Maktum to lead prayer in Medina. (As-Sayyid Sabiq, Fiqh us-Sunna, American Trust Publications, 1989, vol. 2, p. 57). On more than one occasion Muadh would pray isha with the Prophet and when he was finished he would return to his people and, with the Prophet’s permission, he would lead them in prayer. (As-Sayyid Sabiq, Fiqh us-Sunna, American Trust Publications, 1989, vol. 2, p. 57). Thus, the assumption that the leader must actually lead the prayer is not necessarily valid.

Several ahadith set forth the criteria for leading prayer: an ability to read the Quran, knowledge of the Quran, knowledge of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, and being accepted by the congregation. The following hadith, related by Ahmad and Muslim and reported by Ibn Masud, states that the Prophet said: "The imam of a people should be the one who is the most versed in the Quran. If they are equal in their recital, then the one who is most knowledgeable of the sunnah. If they are equal in the sunnah, then it is the one who migrated first. If they are equal in that, then it is the eldest. And one should not lead prayer in another’s house without permission." (As-Sayyid Sabiq, Fiqh us-Sunna, American Trust Publications, 1989, vol. 2, p. 56). As-Sayyid Sabiq, a renowned Islamic scholar from al-Azhar, states that the following people are prohibited from leading prayer: someone with a legitimate excuse not to pray and an incapacitated person. He further states that the following people are discouraged from leading prayer: an evildoer and someone who changes the religion. (As-Sayyid Sabiq, Fiqh us-Sunna, American Trust Publications, 1989, vol. 2, pp. 56-58).

Thus, maleness was not mentioned as a criterion. Moreover As-Sayyid Sabiq states that it is preferable for a woman to lead other women in prayer and he states that Aishah used to lead the women in prayer. (As-Sayyid Sabiq, Fiqh us-Sunna, American Trust Publications, 1989, vol. 2, p. 58). According to Ibn Rushd, Imam al-Shafii believed that a woman could lead other women in prayer; however, both al-Tabari and Abu Thawr believed that a woman could lead both men and women in prayer. (Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p.33 (citing Ibn Rushd, Bidaya al-Mujtahid wa Nihaya al-Muqtasid, Dar al-Fikr, vol. 1, p. 105)). Furthermore, Umm Waraqa bint Abdallah, an Ansari woman who was well versed in the Quran, was instructed by Prophet Muhammad to lead ahl dariha (ahl dariha means the people of her home where dar means home and can refer to one’s residence, neighborhood, or village), which consisted of both men and women, in prayer. Wiebke Walther, Women in Islam, Markus Wiener Publishing, 1981, p. 111 (citing Ibn Sad, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, vol. 8, p. 335). The "people of Umm Waraqa’s home" were so numerous that Prophet Muhammad appointed a muezzin for her. (Ibid). Umm Waraqa was one of the few to hand down the Quran before it was written. (Ibid). Also, Umm Waraqa wished to be known as a martyr so she asked Prophet Muhammad to allow her to participate in the Battle of Badr (624 A.D./ 2 A.H.) so that she could take care of the wounded; from that time on Prophet Muhammad referred to her as "the female martyr." (Ibid). In 699 A.D. (77 A.H.) a woman named Ghazala led her male warriors in prayer in Kufa after having controlled the city for a day. (al-Tabari, History of Messengers and Kings, 51:80; Ali Masudi, Gardens of Gold, Dar al-Andalus, Beirut, 1965, 3:139). Not only did she lead Muslim men in prayer, she recited the two longest chapters in the Quran during that prayer. (Ibid). (It should be noted that many traditional imams do not accept Ghazala as legitimate precedent because she belonged to the Kharijite sect, a group of puritans, known for their piety, who revolted against Ali and Muawiya; however, this does not necessarily invalidate her actions). Thus, although the practice of women leading prayer is not commonly accepted, one cannot simply conclude that it is prohibited without first conducting honest and unbiased research.

More Examples of Politically Active Women

Furthermore, Islamic history is filled with women who undertook various forms of political activism. Unfortunately, however, much of this history has been ignored. The first martyr in Islam was a woman, Sumaya zawgat Yasir. Sumaya was tortured and killed in the early period of Islam because of her belief in Prophet Muhammad and the message he brought of one God. Jane Smith, "Women, Religion, and Social Change in Early Islam", Women, Religion, and Social Change, ed. Yvonne Haddad and Elison Findly, State University of New York Press, 1985, p. 25; Muhammad al-Khudari, Noor al Yakin fi Sirat Sayid al-Mursalin, 1935, p.47.

Asma bint Umais was a woman who traveled by sea and emigrated to Abyssinia when the Muslims were being persecuted in Mecca. Abu Musa narrated the following: Asma visited Hafsa, the Prophet’s wife. During her visit Umar ibn al-Khattab arrived and upon seeing Asma he inquired who she was. Hafsa told him Asma’s name whereupon Umar asked if she was the Abyssinian sea traveler and Asma replied that she was. Umar then said "We did hijra before you, so we are closer to the Prophet (PBUH)." Later, the Prophet arrived and Asma related to him what Umar said. The Prophet said to her "Nobody is closer to me than you. Umar and his companions have one hijra, but for you, people of the sea, you have two." Asma later said that others who had emigrated by sea would ask her about this event. Abdelhalim abu Shaqa, Emancipation of Woman at the Time of the Prophet, 1990, vol. 2, p. 37 (citing Bukhari 13:245 and Muslim, The Book of Pilgrimage, 4:101). This story is significant in that Asma bint Umais and her travels in search of religious freedom appeared to be common knowledge and were noteworthy enough to receive praise from the Prophet.

Women also fought in battles to defend Islam. Umm Imara defended the Prophet during the Battle of Uhud after the Muslims were defeated. Umar ibn al-Khattab said "I heard the Prophet (PBUH) saying ‘On the day of Uhud, I never looked right or left without seeing Umm Imara fighting to defend me.’" Abdelhalim abu Shaqa, Emancipation of Woman at the Time of the Prophet, 1990, vol. 2, p. 53 (citing Ibn Sad, Tabaqat).

Another famous female warrior was Nasiba bint Kaab who fought with the Prophet in the Battle of Uhud (625 A.D./ 3 A.H.) and later on with Caliph Abu Bakr in the Ridda war (632 A.D./ 10 A.H.). She was known as such a courageous and dedicated warrior that Abu Bakr himself attended her reception upon her return to Medina. M.H. Sherif, The Muslim Woman Between the Truth of Sharia and the Fallacy of Falsification, Dar al-Marifa al-Jamiyiya, 1987, p. 78 (citing Ibn Sad, Tabakat 4:302-304).

Umm Salama, one of the Prophet’s wives, was instrumental in advising the Prophet during the crisis at Hudaybiya in 628 A.D. (6 A.H.). Muhammad al-Ghazali, Fiqh al-Sira, Alim al-Marifa, p. 363. Her advice prevented disunity among the Muslims after the Treaty of Hudaybiya and her opinion prevailed over that of many men, including Umar ibn al-Khattab. Muhammad al-Ghazali, Fiqh al-Sira, Alim al-Marifa, p. 363. Umm Salama was also an inquisitive student of Islam. She asked the Prophet why only men were mentioned in the Quran and in response God revealed the following verse: "Verily, for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves before God, and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God unceasingly: for all of them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward." (Quran 33:35). Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1987, p. 118 (citing al-Tabari, Tafsir, vol. 22, p. 10).

Umm Hani bint Abi Talib offered refuge to two non-Muslim men who sought protection after the opening of Mecca. After she offered them refuge she went to the Prophet and told him what she had done. He said to her, "We offer refuge to whomever you offered and we guarantee the safety to whom you guaranteed safety." M.H. Sherif, The Muslim Woman Between the Truth of Sharia and the Fallacy of Falsification, Dar al-Marifa al-Jamiyiya, 1987, p. 71-72. (citing Sirat Ibn Hisham, 4:39-40). Thus, in essence, Umm Hani bint Abi Talib performed a significant political function, one often reserved only for the ruler, when she granted political asylum to these men.

Aisha, a wife of Prophet Muhammad, was also politically active. In the year 658 A.D. (36 A.H.) she played a major role in the armed resistance against Ali, the fourth successor after the death of Prophet Muhammad. (Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 66.) Aisha went to mosques and rallied people to take up arms against Ali. (Ibid). Aisha, the only woman on the battlefield, led thousands of men into the "Battle of the Camel." (Ibid). Aisha was clearly an influential leader as shown by the following statement made by Hasan the son of Ali after Aisha traveled to Basra with Talha and al-Zubayr, members of Ali’s opposition, to rally support. Hasan, in a speech made in Kufa, stated, "I swear by God, surely she is the wife of your Prophet, in this life and the hereafter. But it is a test from God to know whether you will obey Him or her." (Abdelhalim Abu Shaka, The Emancipation of Woman at the Time of the Prophet, 1990, p. 151 (citing Bukhari).

Arguments Against Political Participation

Despite the evidence to the contrary, some argue that in Islam women cannot or should not hold positions of leadership. This argument is based primarily on the interpretation given to one hadith and to two Quranic verses. The hadith, related by Abu Bakra, states "God has benefited me from a word I heard from the Prophet (PBUH) on the day of the Camel, after I had been about to join the ranks of the people of the Camel. [Abu Bakra] said ‘When the Prophet was informed that the people of Persia had crowned the daughter of Kisra as their ruler, he said: No people will ever succeed if they hand their affairs to a woman.’" Sahih al-Bukhari, trans. by M.M. Khan, Kazi Publications, 1983, vol. 5, p. 508, no. 508; vol. 9, p. 170-171, no. 219. [SEE SOURCES CHAPTER FOR DISCUSSION OF THIS HADITH] Ibn Hazm understood the hadith to mean that a woman can hold any position of leadership other than actually being the head of state. Muhammad al-Ghazali, Sunna al-Nabawiya Bayna Ahl al-Fiqh wa Ahl al-Hadith, Dar al-Shuruq, 1989, p.56. Muhammad al-Ghazali states that this hadith must be closely scrutinized and while he has no particular desire to have a woman act as head of state, he is adamant that the state be headed by the most capable person. Muhammad al-Ghazali, Sunna al-Nabawiya Bayna Ahl al-Fiqh wa Ahl al-Hadith, Dar al-Shuruq, 1989, p.56. Al-Ghazali also argued that narrowly interpreting this hadith would contradict historical realities, e.g. England under Queen Victoria, India under Indira Ghandi, and Israel under Golda Meir. Muhammad al-Ghazali, Sunna al-Nabawiya Bayna Ahl al-Fiqh wa Ahl al-Hadith, Dar al-Shuruq, 1989, p.58. Al-Ghazali also argues that femininity or masculinity is irrelevant in this regard and he goes on to state that a pious woman is better than a bearded man who has gone astray. (Ibid).

A Quranic verse used to justify excluding women from political leadership states: " And the divorced women shall undergo, without remarrying, a waiting period of three monthly courses: for it is not lawful for them to conceal what God may have created in their wombs, if they believe in God and the Last Day. And during this period their husbands are fully entitled to take them back, if they desire reconciliation; but, in accordance with justice, the rights of the wives with regard to their husbands are equal to the husbands’ rights with regard to them, although men have a degree (darajah) over them. And God is almighty, wise. (Quran 2:228). Imam al-Tabari argued that the degree referred to in this verse exhorts men to treat their wives better than they expect to be treated; in other words, the husband should not require his wife to fulfill all of her obligations to him, but he should still fulfill all of his obligations to her. M.H. Sherif, The Muslim Woman Between the Truth of Sharia and the Fallacy of Falsification, Dar al-Marifa al-Jamiyiya, 1987, p. 141 (citing al-Tabari, Tafsir, 1954, vol. 2, p. 454). The view held by Imam al-Tabari, that husbands should treat their wives better than they expect to be treated by them, was apparently the interpretation given to this verse in the early years of Islam. Abdullah ibn Abbas (d. 788 A.D./ 69 A.H.), the Prophet’s cousin, said: "I adorn myself for my wife as she adorns herself for me, and I would not like to exact all my rights that she owes me, so that she also would not claim all what is due to her...The ‘degree’ is a cue to invite men to pleasant cohabitation and to extend to women more money and good manners, because the one with more gifts should impose more upon himself." M.H. Sherif, "Women and Political Power in Muslim Thought", Lecture, Cornell University, 1987 (citing al-Tabari, Tafsir, 1954, vol. 2, p. 454). In later years, scholars began to view the "degree" as equivalent to the advantages of men and linked the alleged superiority to men’s advantages in jihad, inheritance, and whatever else men had in abundance over women. M.H. Sherif, "Women and Political Power in Muslim Thought", Lecture, Cornell University, 1987 (citing al-Tabari, Tafsir, 1954, vol. 2, p. 454). This supposed superiority was then used as the basis for the argument that wives must obey their husbands. (Ibid). Sayyid Qutb argues that this verse relates to the divorce context where the husband, who has initiated the divorce, has the right to reconcile with his wife during the waiting period. Sayyid Qutb further states: "The nature of the situation imposes this right and the degree is restricted to this situation and cannot be construed as of a general nature, as many misunderstand and then adduce it to situations in which it is not applicable." M.H. Sherif, "Women and Political Power in Muslim Thought", Lecture, Cornell University, 1987 (citing Sayyid Qutb, Fi Dhilal al-Quran, 1973, vol. 2, pp. 246-247). Another argument, again restricting this verse to the divorce setting, holds that the degree or advantage men have is the ability to pronounce divorce without the need for arbitration. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Quran and Woman, Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1992, p.68. Thus, based on the above, this verse need not be interpreted to hold that all men are superior to all women in all situations, thereby denying women political roles.

The other oft quoted verse used to justify the subjugation of women states: "Men shall take full care (qawamuna) of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly[preferred] (faddala) on some of the former than on some of the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has ordained to be guarded." (Quran 4: 34). This verse states a conditional proposition. Men are to take full care of women if two conditions are met: first, if the man’s bounties are more abundant than the woman’s and second, if the man supports the woman from his means. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Quran and Woman, Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1992, p.70. In terms of more abundant material bounties, the only Quranic reference where men receive a greater share than women is inheritance (Quran 4:7). Thus, men are responsible to spend of their property on women and so they are given a larger share in inheritance. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Quran and Woman, Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1992, p.71. The verse gives no indication of men’s superiority over women in regards to intelligence, piety, or any other attribute; therefore, it makes little sense to interpret this verse to mean that men are superior to women. Furthermore, the verse states that some have been given more bounties than some; thus, men as a class are not quawamuna over women as a class. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Quran and Woman, Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1992, p.71 (citing Aziza al-Hibri, "A Study of Islamic Herstory", Women and Islam: Women’s Studies International Forum Magazine, 1982, 5:218). To fully understand the import of the interpretation of this verse in the subjugation of women, one must look at the various interpretations given to qawamuna. Various translations render it as "in charge of", "in charge of the affairs of", or "managers of the affairs of." Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Quran and Woman, Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1992, p.71. Another plausible interpretation is "in charge of the service of" because the word quwamuna includes the concepts of taking care of another, maintaining another, and moral responsibility for another (Muhammad Asad, The Mesage of the Quran, Dar Al-Andalus, 1980, p. 109, nt. 42); taken together, these concepts refer to meeting the needs of another. Whether the concept of qawamuna applies only in the family setting or whether it applies to society as a whole is an issue of debate among scholars. (Id. at p. 72). Some argue that the concept applies to the family setting, specifically, it addresses the responsibility of the man to ensure that the woman is not burdened with other responsibilities while she is fulfilling her child-bearing function, thereby equalizing their responsibilities to the family. (Id. at p. 73). Thus, this verse does not hold that men have authority over women or that all men are superior to all women; therefore, it cannot be used as a categorical justification to deprive women of political involvement.

Conclusion

The Quran, sunnah, and Islamic history provide ample evidence of women undertaking various forms of political involvement from the bai’ah to fighting in battles to influencing political decisions. Ignoring the contributions of Muslim women deprives our Islamic heritage of valuable role models while continuing the stagnation of Islamic thought. To exclude women from political involvement simply because they are women is an act of tribalism based on gender. The Prophet stated: "He is not of us who proclaims the cause of tribal partisanship..."Muhammad Asad, The Principles of State and Government in Islam, Dar Al-Andalus, 1980, p. 32 (citing Abu Dawud).

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