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An Islamic Perspective on Women in the Political System

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." (Quran 9:71).

This verse compels women and men to act for the betterment of society. One is encouraged 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.

Since the beginning of Islamic history women have had a voice in electing their leader. 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. 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. 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)

Women can also hold political positions in Islam. No Quranic verses exist that prevent women from holding positions of leadership. Some traditional Islamic scholars were of the opinion that women could hold the position of judge.

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. Many state that women cannot hold positions of leadership because women cannot lead men in prayer. 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.

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 leader should follow the teachings of Islam in leadership and should act as a role model. Leading prayer is not a necessary criterion for leadership, although it is symbolically desirable. Thus, the assumption that the leader must actually lead the prayer is not actually necessary.

The criteria for leading prayer are an ability to read the Quran, knowledge of the Quran, and knowledge of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (Hadith, Sahih of Muslim). Thus, maleness is not a criterion. Furthermore, Umm Waraqa, an Ansari woman who was well versed in the Quran, lead her people in prayer (Hadith, Sunan of Abu Dawud); (Musnad Ahmed Ibn Hanbal). In addition to Umm Waraqa leading her family in prayer, a woman named Ghazala, in the 7th century A.D., led Muslim men and women in prayer. (al-Tabari, History of Messengers and Kings, Cairo, Ch. 51, p.80); (Ali Masudi, Gardens of Gold, Dar al-Andalus, Beirut 1965, ch. 3, p.139). Not only did she lead Muslim men in prayer, she recited the two longest chapters in the Quran during that prayer (many traditional imams do not accept Ghazala as legitimate precedent because she belonged to the Khawarij school; however, this does not necessarily invalidate her actions).

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