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An Islamic Perspective on Women in the Political System


By: Farhat Naz Rahman

(Ms Farhat Naz Rahman is a Research Scholar and Ph. D. Candidate at Islamic Learning Department, University of Karachi, Karachi, Pakistan. She can be contacted by writing to:

B-2/20, Al Ahram Plaza, Block 13- A, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi. 75300, Pakistan.)

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.

Business-as-usual politics (like every other social institution that is traditionally the “sphere” of men) is male-dominated. It is politics dominated by men not only in numbers but also in outlook-authoritarian, exclusionary opinionated and competitive.

Political participation has taken different forms in different countries in the last few decades; due not only to main changes inside political systems in force in each country, but also in the international situation as a whole. Female political participation, especially, has demonstrated a considerable amount of imagination and creativity, as women’s organizations and feminist groups become more and more aware of the crucial importance taking part in the decision-making process has for the improvement of women’s social condition.

What is interesting is that Allah, The Most Wise, has not specified any particular role for all men or all women. The Qur'an does not propose or support a singular role or single definition of a set of roles, exclusively, for each gender across every culture.

This thus allows individuals the freedom to decide on their functions and roles best suited to their contexts. This must, of course, be done by maintaining fairness and equality through mutual consultation, mercy, consideration and compassion between those affected by the decision.

Social responsibility in Islam is derived from the Qur’anic 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." (Qur’an Surah Tauba: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. Yet when we attempt to assert ourselves as Muslim women we are accused of being influenced by the West and attempting to cause divisions and putting Muslims and Islam to disrepute.

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 (pbuh) received the bai'ah from the people. The Qur’an addresses the issue of women giving the bai'ah to Prophet Muhammad and God tells Muhammad (pbuh) 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." (Qur’an Surah al Mumtahana: 12)

Women can also hold political positions in Islam. No Qur’anic verses exist that prevent women from holding positions of leadership.

Much-vaunted hadith that the Prophet said, `A people who entrust power to a woman will never prosper', has been shown to be extremely unreliable on several counts. It is an isolated and uncorroborated one and therefore not binding in Islamic law, and in addition there is reason to believe it may have been forged in the context of the battle, which A’isha (RAa) the Prophet's widow led against the fourth Khalifah Ali (RA).  In view of the examples set by women rulers in history, it is also clearly untenable and false.

The word imam as used in the Qur’an means a source of guidance (e.g. Qur’an Surah Baqara, 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 Qur'an even speaks favorably of the Queen of Sheba and the way she consulted her advisors, who deferred to her good judgment on how to deal with the threat of invasion by the armies of Solomon.  She (the Queen of Sheba) said, `O chiefs, advise me respecting my affair; I never decide an affair until you are in my presence.'  They said, `We are possessors of strength and possessors of mighty prowess, and the command is thine, so consider what thou wilt command.'  She said, `Surely the kings, when they enter a town, ruin it and make the noblest of its people to be low, and thus they do.  And surely I am going to send them a present, and to see what (answer) the messengers bring back.'

Islamic law makes no demand that women should confine themselves to household duties.  In fact the early Muslim women were found in all walks of life.  The first wife of the Prophet, mother of all his surviving children, was a businesswoman who hired him as an employee, and proposed marriage to him through a third party. Women were given the responsibility of running the affairs of the State. A woman - Shifa bint 'abd Allah - was appointed controller of the market of Madinah by the Prophet and the Khalifah Umar (RA), not normally noted for his liberal attitude to women, reappointed her, to supervise the market. Hazrat Umar (RA) used to take advise from her.  Hazrat Umar (RA) also appointed Hazrat Umm Hakim Baiza, who was the paternal aunt of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) a learned women, at the post of Khilafat. (Ref: Rehmatulalamin page no 105-part II by Qazi Suleman Mansoor puri).

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). Following the footstep of Ummeh Waraqa the Khalifa Walid II of Banu Ummaiah sent one of his Kaneez (slave) giving her his turban, to the mosque of Damascus and ordered her to lead in the Juma (Friday) Prayer. At this mosque the ruler had to lead the Juma prayer. This incident happened in the history of Damascus yet no objection from any quarter; any jurist has come into light or reported in the history. Hundreds and thousands of the male at that time listened the Khutbah (sermon) from the woman and followed her in the prayer. (Justice Syed Ameer Ali, Short History of Saracens Page No. 196). 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. Women can be a head of the state according to the Imam Malik, Imam Tibri and Imam Abu Hanifa.

Women's views were listened to, respected, and usually supported, by the Prophet as we have seen. Another example is when the Makkans who made an agreement with him that he and the Muslims could return the following year stopped the Prophet’s pilgrimage to Makkah. He told the people to shave their heads and offer their sacrifices where they were, but they did not obey, so he asked his wife Umm Salamah, and she advised him to lead them by doing so himself. He took her advice, and it worked.

“Hazrat Ayesha (RAa), the first woman leader of Islam was a teacher of men and women. In turn her students, men and women, taught others how to govern, how to organise Muslim communities, and how to arrange Muslim family and social life. The great scholars of hadith got their learning from Ayesha. The Noble Prophet bore witness to Hazrat Ayesha’s intellect, understanding, rational approach to life. At a time of crisis she had no hesitation in taking over command of the Islamic army and directing it in the field of battle. In peace time she gave religious rulings and helped the most learned of the Companions of the Prophet differentiate between the right and the wrong.  All the Fiqh and Laws of Islam are related to Hazrat Ayesha. It is about time that Muslims started remembering Hazrat Ayesha.


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