Women and Leadership in Islam

Updated: 3 days ago

We often hear the Ḥadīth, "A people will never be successful who have their affairs governed by a woman." Many of us immediately conclude from this that a woman should not be in charge of anything. Our request is before we finalize that thought as conclusion, let us briefly look at a few points, beginning with the full wordage of the Ḥadīth in discussion.

On the authority of Abū Bakrah, he states, "Allah saved me by way of something I heard from the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. When Kisrā perished, he asked, 'Who will succeed him?' They responded, 'His daughter.' So then the Prophet ﷺ said, 'A people will never be successful who have their affairs governed by a woman.' So when ‘Ā’ishah was appointed at Baṣrah, I recalled the statement of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, and Allah saved me by way of it." Agreed upon.

The event Abū Bakrah ath-Thaqafī is speaking of is when ‘Ā’ishah was elected as a rallying point for those seeking justice for the death of ‘Uthmān, which ultimately culminated into the Battle of the Camels in Baṣrah.

While Abū Bakrah understood this Ḥadīth as a reason to refrain from participating in rallying around ‘Ā’ishah, Ṭalḥah and Zubayr were in full support of the decision. If we then posit that all of these illustrious companions had knowledge of this Ḥadīth, we must come to the thought that their understanding and application of the Ḥadīth must contrast. If that understanding contrasts, then Ā’ishah, Ṭalḥah, and Zubayr did not view their action as violation of this Ḥadīth, so then its application must also be at variance.

When we examine the event that sparked our Prophet's statement, we receive further context. The Kisrā was the title of the ruler of Persia of that day, just as in other cultures there is Caesar, Negus, King, and President. The son of the Kisrā was Shayrawayh. Due to his zeal for the throne, he had all of his brothers assassinated so that there would be no other heir to the throne than him, however, he could not wait for the natural passing of his father to take the throne, so he had his father, Kisrā, assassinated after his brothers to expedite the process. Interestingly, the Kisrā was quite aware of his son's plots, but was not able to stop him, so he placed a poison bottled in Shayrawayh's personal armoire, with the label sexual potency placed upon the bottle, whoever drinks it will have increased sexual strength. When he saw this, he drank it immediately and became ill passing just six months after the death of his father.

Subsequently, there was now no heir to the throne other than Shayrawayh's daughter, Būrān bint Shayrawayh bin Kisrā bin Birwīz, and the people did not want governance to leave this family, so she was appointed, and it is said her sister, Armazīd ascended to the throne after her.

The majority of scholarship holds the view this Ḥadīth is relegated solely to women holding the primary governmental seat within a country and being a judge. Extended from this, those of this view extrapolate this point as evidence against a woman officiating her own marriage to the exclusion of a guardian.

Others mention this Ḥadīth to be particular to the Prophet ﷺ prophesying the eventual fall of Persia and was not prohibiting women from holding positions of authority; yet others site this Ḥadīth as evidence for prohibiting women from all positions of authority.

Further, we have spectacular examples of female leadership throughout our tradition. We will mention a few merely as a means of encouragement to search out more.

This is Maryam bint ‘Imrān. She is a spectacle in piety and spirituality. She devoted herself to the care of and worship in Masjid al-Aqṣā in Jerusalem, to such an extent she was granted her own personal prayer chamber. She reached such heights of worship that Allah would provide for her within the prayer chamber, without human intervention, fruits of the delicacies that were out of season at the time they descended upon her. She became so righteous that the chief of the angels, Jibrīl, would descend upon her, and she would eventually be granted the honor of giving birth to one of the greatest Prophets and Messengers throughout the history of Islam.

This is Āsiyah bint Muzāḥim. She remained dedicated to her faith, even at the chagrin of her husband, to the extent that her husband tortured her and eventually took her life, for no other reason than her decision to dedicate herself to the worship of Allah alone. Her husband was the greatest and most powerful tyrant of the day, yet she remained firm in her faith and devotion until death reached at her husband's hands.

This is Khadījah bint Khuwaylid. She is a woman who became independently wealthy at a time when it was unusual for women to be operating independent of a man's leadership in the economic market. After the passing of a previous husband, she took her inheritance from him, invested it into her business, entered into international trade, provided jobs for locals, and after her marriage to the Prophet ﷺ, was one of the first to use her wealth to support Islam and the Muslims. She is the first of those who embraced to perform ablution, the first to pray, the first to give charity, and the first to be granted the glad tidings of Paradise.

The Prophet ﷺ would commonly deliver sermon upon a tree stump during the early days of settlement into Madinah, this is the same tree stump that sobbed like a baby when he ceased preaching upon it, but what of the story behind this transition. There was a woman from the Anṣār, who observed the Prophet ﷺ preaching to the people upon the tree stump and thought it inappropriate for someone of his stature to address the people upon a tree stump. He required something more befitting than this, something with more class, as she saw it, so she designated her carpenter to design and build the pulpit for the Prophet ﷺ, he accepted it, and this is where the Sunnah of the pulpit is derived from, the ingenuity and progressive thinking of an extraordinary woman. Thought provokingly, she already had the carpenter under her ward.

This is Sumayyah bint Khabbāṭ, the first martyr to sacrifice her life in the cause of Allah. She was amongst the first to embrace the faith and practice her faith proudly when it was highly unpopular to do so. During the era of Muslim persecution when many Muslims were disempowered in numerous ways, she stood firm when here faith was challenged, even in the face of being tortured, even in the face of death itself.

This is ‘Ā’ishah bint Abī Bakr aṣ-Ṣiddīqah. Her station with the Prophet ﷺ and her contributions to Islam are known. She achieved one of the highest degrees of scholarship throughout the history of our faith. She is amongst those who have narrated the most Ḥadīth from all the companions, and if not for her Ḥadīth, it is possible that many of the narrations concerning the household of the Prophet ﷺ and his personal daily dealings may have remained unknown. Under her tutelage, she produced many scholars from the generation of the successors to the companions. She was such an example in integrity, Allah revealed the chapter an-Nūr in her honor and defense, and to bring further confirmation to this, Allah decreed the final Prophet ﷺ to humanity, and the jinn, pass away in her home upon her lap with her saliva within his mouth.

This is Umm Waraqh. She lived in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Madinah, and there was none better suited to lead the prayer in her neighborhood, so the Prophet ﷺ appointed a person to call the adhān for her and then ordered the people of her neighborhood to pray behind her. Collected by Abū Dāwūd and Aḥmad. Being that the narration does not enter into further detail, scholarship differs as to whether this was for her entire neighborhood, her individual household, or amongst a group of women. Partially non sequitur, scholarship holds the view, that if it is to occur that a woman leads men in congregation, the woman stands behind the ranks of the men and not in front of them.

There is even a view in scholarship that a woman can stand alongside her husband in prayer, as opposed to behind him, when he is leading her, since the barriers of hijab are removed between the two of them.

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