Can Woman Become Head of the State or Government?

In my article ‘Islam and Democracy: How far Compatible’ published in The New Nation on 11 March 2006 I discussed  the question of women’s participation as the head of an Islamic government or head of an Islamic state and argued that in today’s world rulers are parts of an establishment. Indeed the government itself is one of a group of institutions that share out among itself the power and authority, which used to be exercised by a single ruler, regardless of the title he assumed. During the earlier days of Islam, the Kholafa-e-Rashadeen used to combine in them comprehensive and broad authority, over the whole Muslim world which no ruler is expected to exercise in foreseeable future, including leading prayers, commanding armies, exercising absolute Ijtihad in Fiqh, and being the supreme judge. From the point of view of her competence, a woman may be assigned some of these powers, including the post of the head of the state, because none of these powers, including that of head of the state, constitute the overall authority over the community, which assigns it to a woman.

Moreover no present-day Islamic constitution of any Muslim country has given all these powers to a single person. There is also no obligation in the Quran and Sunnah that all these powers must be vested to a single person.

In modern state, it is institutions that rule, not individuals. Women, whatever their number in executive, legislative or judiciary positions are included in bodies and are subject to a system. Laws are codified, and discretionary decisions are subject to be reviewed by those who have higher positions or by the courts. No single man or woman can maintain absolute power in modern state. A woman has the right to vote, to be a member of parliament, a minister, a judge, and even an officer in the army. Which jobs may or may not be convenient should be decided by women themselves- not imposed on them- according to their own conviction and based on their own interests. But many traditional Islamic leaders are reluctant to accept this position.

Mr. Mohammad Sakhi under the heading ‘Islam and Democracy’ responded to my article that was published in The New Nation on 17 April 2006. He without refuting the argument put forwarded in favor of woman participation as the head of an Islamic government or head of an Islamic state in my article (as also mentioned briefly in the aforementioned paragraphs), quoted four narrations of the Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be on him) without quoting their sources.

The first Hadith quoted by Mr. Mohammad Sakhi is ‘a nation which entrusts its affairs with women cannot prosper’.  In my previous article I raised question on the authenticity of this particular Hadith narrated by Abi Bakra. The scholars of Hadith have classified this Hadith as Ahad Hadith meaning Hadith whose authenticity is not beyond question and this Hadith is Zanni in nature meaning that the Hadith has no established interpretation and whatever interpretation is given will be of speculative in nature. Ahad Hadith is generally reported by single Companion of the Prophet which did not become well-known in immediate two or three generations, does not give positive knowledge, is of speculative authenticity and therefore fall under the category of speculative proofs.  Moreover what is established by the Quran cannot be restricted or discarded by Ahad Hadith. Shaykh Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, President of The Fiqh Council of North America and Member of the OIC Islamic Fiqh Council is of the opinion that “the Sunnah is there to clarify the Quran, not to contradict or reject its basic principles” [Issues in Contemporary Islamic Thought, IIIT, U. S. A., 2005, p171]. Tirmizi has classified this Hadith as Hasan Sahih [Hadith No. 2262, Sunan Al Tirmizi, Al Jami Al Sahih, Tahqiq- Mahmud Muhammad Mahmud Hasan Nassar, Kitab Al Fitan, Dar Al Qutb Al Islamiah, Beirut, 2000, p 263]. Narrators of Hadith classified as Hasan Sahih are trustworthy but commit error and the content is not Qati or absolutely correct.

Mr. Mohammad Sakhi   quoted two other narrations of the Hadith - (i) ‘when your affairs are in the hands of women then the lap of the earth is better for you then the back of the earth’ and (ii) ‘when you see your leaders are immoral and wealthy people are misers and your affairs are entrusted with a woman then remember the lap of the earth is better then the back of the earth’. A closer examination of the aforementioned two narrations of Hadith reveals that both the narrations are English rendering of the same Hadith. Tirmizi has classified this Hadith narrated by Abu Huraira as Gharib, poor [Hadith No. 2266, Sunan Al Tirmizi, Al Jami Al Sahih, Tahqiq- Mahmud Muhammad Mahmud Hasan Nassar, Kitab Al Fitan, Dar Al Qutb Al Islamiah, Beirut, 2000, pp 264-265. Also see Muhammad Sharif Chaudhry, Women’s Right in Islam, Adam Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi, 2003, p 167].  Such Hadith has been classified as Gharib, poor in whose chain of transmission at one stage the Hadith is reported by one single person only

The fourth Hadith quoted by Mr. Mohammad Sakhi is ‘men have been destroyed when they obeyed the woman’. Scholars have classified this Hadith narrated by Abi Bakra as Daif, weak [Ibn Adi, Kitab ‘Al Kamil Fi Duafa’, p 218/2. Also see www.].Eminent commentator of Hadith Sheikh Muhammad Nasiruddin Albani also classified this Hadith as Daif, weak [Al Albani, Silsilatul Ahadith Daifa, p 76. Also see www.]. A Hadith is Daif, weak if among the reporters are any Majhul person, i.e. unknown person in terms of identity or conduct or if there is any Fasiq, violator of any important practice or any liar.

Eminent Islamic scholar Dr. Kaukab Siddique has put forward three arguments in justification that there is no Shariah bar of woman being the head of an Islamic state or the head of an Islamic government. Dr. Siddique referred that Hazrat Ayesha lead the Battle of Camel in which the Sahabas, the Companions of the Prophet followed her. Dr. Siddique dismissed the claim that ‘Ayesha believed she had violated the Quran by going to the Battle of Camel and that she cried when  she thought of her mistake’  as being “weak and fabricated” [Dr.Kaukab Siddique, The Struggle of Muslim Women, American Society for Education and Religion, INC. 1983, p 46. Bengali tr. Muslim Nareer Sangram, Osder Publications, Dhaka, 2000, p 46].  The fact remains that Hazrat Ayesha was in leadership and nobody in the either camps objected to her leadership for being woman.

The Hadith Bukhari often quoted against the permissibility of women leadership is narrated by Abi Bakra, a Sahabi, Companion of the Prophet. The Hadith reads: ‘Usman ibn al-Haitham reports from Auf, who reports from al-Hasan, who reports from Abi Bakra, who said: In the time of Battle of the Camel, Allah benefited me from this saying: that when the Prophet, peace and blessings be on him, heard that the Persians have made the daughter of  Chosroes their King, he (the Prophet) said: that nation will never prosper which puts a woman in command of its affairs [Sahih al Bukhari, Kitabal Fitn, quoted in The Struggle of Muslim Women,  p 55. Bengali tr. Muslim Nareer Sangram, p 52]. Dr. Kaukab Siddique pointed out that “if we accept this Hadith as correct it would mean that … Companion of the Prophet quoted the Prophet as saying that a women’s leadership is rejected in Islam, and yet he fought under the command of a woman , and continued to support that woman till the end of his days” [The Struggle of Muslim Women, p 57. Bengali tr. Muslim Nareer Sangram, p 54].

Indian eminent Islamic scholar Muhammad Sharif Chaudhury wrote: “In fact there is no verse or injection in the Holy Quran which directly or clearly either permits the rule of woman or prohibits her rule. Similarly there is no Hadith or injunction of the Prophet (peace be upon him) which can be quoted to establish that the Holy Prophet either allowed the woman to become head of the state or government or disallowed and forbade her to assume such responsibilities. The Tradition of the Prophet Muhammad about Kisra’s daughter who was enthroned by the Persians, is believed by many to be unreliable and unauthentic as the reporter of this Tradition was convicted and punished in a case of Hudood and his evidence is not dependable. Thus we can safely and without fear of contradiction conclude that that the Quran and Sunnah neither permit nor forbid the woman’s rule” [Women’s Right in Islam,  p 175].

Dr. Kaukab Siddique commenting on verse 27: 23, 27: 32 and 27: 44 reiterated that “nowhere does the Quran imply and indicate that Bilqees gave up her rule over the land of Saba after she accepted Islam” [The Struggle of Muslim Women, p 56. Bengali tr. Muslim Nareer Sangram, p 53]. Mr. Mohammad Sakhi, however, quoting Islamic Encyclopedia and Tafsir Ruhul Mani tried to establish that she gave up power. But this is completely speculative as the Holy Quran is silent in this respect. Nor does the authentic Hadith say anything in the matter that the Queen of Sheba left the throne after accepting Islam. The general principle of Islam is that when the Quran and Sunnah do not specifically prohibit a thing or is silent in the matter, we have to take a positive look and consider that permissible and not prohibited anyway [Prof. Dr. Yusuf Al Qaradawi, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, American Trust Publications, U. S. A., p 14. Bengali tr. Islame Halal Haramer Bidhan, Khairun Prokashani, Dhaka, 1999, p 31].

Dr. Kaukab Siddique quoted the ruling of eminent Islamic scholar Ashraf Ali Thanvi wherein  he (Ashraf Ali Thanvi) opined that  the Hadith of Abi Bakra in question as discussed earlier “is about autocratic rule by women, not rule by consultation”. Ashraf Ali Thanvi wrote: “In cases like those of Bilqees where a woman rules with the help of an assembly or legislative body, the Hadith from Abi Bakra would not apply. The daughter of the King of Persia was a despotic ruler and hence the Prophet condemned her rule” [Ashraf Ali Thanvi, Imdad al Fatwa, vol. 5, quoted in The Struggle of Muslim Women, pp 58-59. Bengali tr. Muslim Nareer Sangram, pp 54-55].

Muhammad Sharif Chaudhury wrote: “Moulana Ashraf Al Thanvi, a leading scholar of the Islamic world, gave a Fatwa in favor of the rule of Shahjahan Begum, the Queen of Bhopal. The Moulana states that if the government is democratic and the affairs of the state are being conducted by the ruler with the help of elected representatives and in consultation with them, then there is no bar against the woman becoming the head of the state or government. … To justify his view, the Moulana has relied on the reference of the Quran about the rule of Queen of Sheba” [Women’s Right in Islam, p 173].

The Government of Saudi Arabia in its Position Paper, highlighting the status, rights and role of the Muslim woman according to the basic sources of Islam, that was presented on the occasion of UN Conference on Woman, Beijing 1995 reiterated that “there is absolutely nothing in the Quran which directly or indirectly forbids a woman to become the head of a state, or even suggests that she is essentially incompetent for the position” [Woman and Family Life in Islam, World Assembly of Muslim Youth, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, First Edition 1995, p 34]. 

Muhammad Sharif Chaudhury commented: “The silence of the Quran and Hadith on this very important and vital issue is not without wisdom and sagacity. This deliberate silence means that Islam has given full freedom and discretion to the Muslim Ummah to decide this matter according to the ever changing socio-political circumstances. Since the socio-economic and political environments change with the passage of time effecting the human needs and necessities, no permanent injunctions laying down any hard and fast rules regarding the choice of the ruler or his sex, cooler, race, language or other qualifications have been enunciated by the Quran and Sunnah. The choice has been left open to the Muslim community to decide according to their needs in the prevailing circumstances as to who should be their Amir or chief. Islam favors the form of government by consultation which in the modern jargon is called democratic form of government. In this form of government the people are free to elect anybody who, they feel, would be able to discharge the responsibilities of the highest office of the chief executive or head of the state. The ruler in Islam is not a despot, autocrat or dictator. He is to rule in consultation with others. So the ruler may be a man or a woman, he or she is to discharge duties of the office with the consultation and advice of the elected representatives of the people” [Women’s Right in Islam, pp 175-176].

Muhammad Sharif Chaudhury further elaborated: “The Quran condemns in open and unambiguous terms the rule of Pharaoh of Egypt who was a man, but it does not express even a slight disapproval of the rule of the Queen of Sheba who was a woman. So it is not the sex of the ruler which is important, but it is in fact the nature and sprit of the rule which is significant. Circumstances may arise for the Muslim Ummah when the benevolent and democratic rule of a woman like Queen of Sheba may be preferable to the despotic and tyrannical rule of a man like Pharaoh of Egypt. Pages of history bear witness to the fact that women became rulers in the Muslim world like Razia, daughter of Sultan Iltutmash, in India in thirteenth century. Shajrat-ul-Darr, daughter of King Najam-ud-Din, in Egypt in thirteenth century, Chand Bibi in southern part of India in sixteenth century, Sutt-ul-Mulk, daughter of caliph Al-Aziz Billah, in Egypt in eleventh century A.D. and Queen Shahjahan Begum of Bhopal in India in early twentieth century. Their rule was never opposed by any of the well known ulama of their age, neither any of the contemporary jurists, scholars or leading ulama gave a Fatwa declaring their rule Haram (unlawful) on the basis of their sex. On the other hand, some ulama gave Fatwas to justify their rule, e.g., in case of Queen of Bhopal, Moulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi gave a Fatwa favoring her rule. However, we can easily find many examples in history when the scholars of Islam and the Ulama vehemently opposed some male rulers because of their tyrannical and despotic rule. Only recently we have seen in Pakistan that most of the leading ulama supported the candidature of a woman for the highest post of the President of Pakistan in the elections of 1964” [Women’s Right in Islam, p 176].

Amina Wadud, Professor of Islamic Studies, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University writes: “The Quran uses no terms that imply that the position of ruler is inappropriate for a woman. On the contrary, the Quranic story of Bilqis celebrates both her political and religious practices. … I decide no case until you (advice me on it) [Verse 27: 32]. … The Quran does not restrict the female from being in authority, either over other women or over both women and men. However, there is implication that the Quran inclines towards seeing necessary tasks fulfilled in society in most efficient manner [Quran and Woman: Reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, pp 40, 89].

Dr. Zeenath Kausar, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Kulliyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University, Malaysia commenting on the verse 4: 34 al-rijal qawwamuna ala al-nisa mentioned that this “verse is confined to the family and therefore cannot be extended to the political field” [Political Participation of Women: Contemporary Perspectives of Gender Feminists & Islamic Revivalists, published by A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, 1997, p 30]. She wrote: [Basically] “arguments against women’s political participation, in particular, and public participation, in general, are supported either by narrow interpretations of Islamic texts or invalid generalizations” [ibid p 19]. The statement by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt on the ‘Role of the Muslim Women in Islamic Society and its Stand on the Women’s Right to Vote, be Elected, and Occupy Public and Governmental Posts, and Work in General’ commenting on the verse 4: 34 states that this verse is “confined to the family and to matters only concerning the husband and wife relationships” [ibid p 70]. A new translation of the verse 4: 34-35 is: Men shall take full care of women with the bounties with which God has favored some of them more abundantly than others, and with what they may spend of their own wealth. For a detailed discussion on this verse readers are referred to read: Woman: Chastisement and Other Issues, Bangladesh Journal of Islamic Thought, BIIT, Vol. 1, No. 1, January-June 2005 or visit 

Verse 9:71 states: And as for the believing men and believing women, they are the guardians of each other [The Quran, tr. by M. H. Shakir, Goodword Books, New Delhi, India, 2003, p123]. The Arabic word is Awlia. If women are guardians of men, how women can be denied the leadership of the Ummah.  In fact the Ulama of Pakistan including Moulana Mawdudi accepted Faitma Jinnah’s nomination as a presidential candidate in 1964 presidential elections [Prof. Dr. Yusuf Al Qaradawi, Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase, Awakening Publications, U. K., 2000, p 50. Bengli tr. Adhunik Jug: Islam Kaushal O Karmoshuchi, Dhaka, 2003, p 38] and in Indonesia Meghawati Shukarno Putri became the president of that country with the support of Islamic parties.

Verse 2: 124 of the Holy Quran is also very significant wherein Prophet Ibrahim prayed to Allah to make imams, leaders from his offspring. Allah replied: My covenant does not extend to those who are unjust. Almighty Allah here did not specify the gender, male or female. In this verse, leadership is a covenant between God and humanity – a covenant that is not extended to those who are unjust or who draw close to injustice [Authority: Divine or Quranic in Shaykh Taha Jabir Al-Alwani’s Issues in Contemporary Islamic Thought, IIIT, U. S. A., 2005, p 281].

Verse 4: 59, u lil amr min kum - obey those in authority from among you, also did not specify the gender, male or female.

Mr. Mohammad Sakhi’s conjecture that ‘women are physically weak and lack wisdom’, ‘woman’s physical conditions are unsuitable for leadership’ and therefore ‘the Muslim woman is not allowed to become the head of the state or government’ contradicts with verse 95: 4 of the Holy Quran which states that human beings have been created in the best of mould. The question therefore does no arise that women’s intellectual capacity is less than that of men.

Mr. Mohammad Sakhi puts forward arguments, which is not part of my earlier article, to prove his contention that woman leadership is not allowed in Islam and that the Shariah does not permit a woman to become head of the Islamic state or the head of the Islamic government and he mentioned in his article that Allah has sent no woman as Prophet nor made woman Imam of the mosque. He also raised question about the participation of women in the mosque and their placement in the mosque behind the row of men as a proof of women’s secondary role to that of men in social affairs that are connected to leadership. 

Dr. Jamal Badawi, eminent Egyptian Islamic scholar and currently Chairman of the Islamic Information Foundation Canada, in response the question ‘why all the prophets were male’ replied: “Islam teaches that prophets are not selected by people and so there is no question of there being male or female bias. Prophets are selected by Allah and He is neither male nor female. Possible reasons for a man always being chosen for this role include the fact that the Prophet’s role is not simply to prophesy, but to go out into the community and combat evil and enjoin goodness, even though he may suffer hurt and abuse by doing so. Thus, he not only leads the believers in their ritual worship, but also may have to lead them in battle. It is inconceivable, therefore, that a woman, perhaps someone who was pregnant, could face up to such duties, indeed, Allah does not select any man to be a prophet – He selects men who have special fortitude”. [Islamic Teachings Course, Islamic Schools Trust, 2 Digswell Street, London N7 8JX, England, vol. 3, p 40. Bangla tr. Islami Shikkha Series, BIIT, Dhaka, 2006, p 314]. 

Women if not Prophets are the mothers of Prophets although according to some Islamic scholars Hajrat Maryam (peace be on her) was a Prophet as angel Gabriel visited her [Dr. Mai Yamani (eminent Saudi female scholar, Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) ed. Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives, New York University Press, New York, First Edition, 1996, p 301. Also see Dr. Kaukab Siddique, The Struggle of Muslim Women,  p 70.Bangla tr. Muslim Nareer Sangram, p 65].

Dr. Jamal Badawi replying another question ‘why women pray behind men’ replied: The Muslim prayer does not simply involve quiet supplication whilst being seated; the salah includes bowing, prostrations and standing therefore, logically, there is only one place where women could be situated when in congregational prayers and that is behind the men. The reason for this is that if they were in front of the men, or standing amongst them (shoulder to shoulder) neither men nor women could perform the prayer without disturbing the concentration which is required for this spiritual communication with Allah. Thus the positioning of the women has nothing to do with status, but is simply a matter of etiquette and modesty” [Islamic Teachings Courses, vol. 3, p 40. Bengali tr. Islami Shikkha Series, p 314].  

I shall now examine the Hadith literature which is often misquoted against women. Eminent Islamic scholar Muhammad Nasiruddin Albani in his book Sifatu Salatin Nabie Minat Taqbire Ilat Taslim Kaannaka Tarahu quoted a Hadith from Muslim, Abu Dawud, Ibn Khojaimah in which Prophet is reported to have said: A dog, an ass and a woman interrupt prayer if they pass in front of the believer, interposing themselves between him and the qiblah [Muhammad Nasiruddin Albani, Rasulullahr Namaj, Shatabdi Prokashoni, 491/1 Moghbazar Wireless Rail Gate, Dhaka-1217, 1998, p 45]. This Hadith seems to aim at placing women behind men during prayer. Hazrat Ayesha, mother of the believers, however contradicted this Hadith saying: You compare us now to asses and dogs. In the name of God, I have seen the Prophet saying his prayers while I was there, lying on the bed between him and the qiblah and in order not to disturb him, I did not move [Fatima Mernissi, The Veil & The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, Perseus Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, p 70]. She criticized the lumping together of women with dogs and donkeys which she regarded as insult on the person and personality of women.

In another Hadith the Prophet is reported to have said:  The better rows for men are front ones, and the worst are the last ones. The better rows for women are the last ones and the worst are the first ones. This Hadith however does not clearly prohibit women from the mosque and only seeks to place women behind men in prayers and not intended to prevent women from praying next to men in most crowded mosque. This Hadith also need to be reconciled with another Hadith in which the Prophet is reported to have said: The first rows [of the prayers] were perceived as superior, specially the first one, for God and the angles bless the first row and the first few rows. To interpret this Hadith in a way that goes against the principle of human equality as enshrined by Islam cannot be acceptable for this is against the very spirit of Islam and principle of natural justice of which Islam is exponent. Prophet in all fairness cannot deny blessings to women keeping them in the rear rows. In fact some scholars got confused and compared the best rows with the prayer rows. In fact the Hadith has been explained in a misplaced context. The best row is the first row of the battle. In other words, the Prophet encouraged women to stay behind the lines during the battles. This becomes clear if the aforementioned Hadith is read together with Quran. Al Quran states: God loves those who fight in His cause in row, as if they were an ordered structure [61: 4]. The problem with this particular Hadith arose as later compiler of Hadith categorized this Hadith with the chapter of prayer, salat.

“That woman is not barred from the mosque is clear from the Hadith in which Prophet is reported to have said: O women. When the men prostrate themselves, then lower your gaze, so you do not see the private parts of the men due to tightness of their loin cloths”.

Al Fanjari cites a tradition showing that a beautiful woman used to pray behind the Prophet and in front of other men. [See al-Hafiz ‘Amad al-Din Abi al-Fida’ Ismail ibn Kathir al-Qurashi al-Dimashqi, Tafsir al-Quran al-Azim (Cairo: Dar Ihya al-Kutub al-Arabiyah), 548-50; and al-Fanjari, Ikhtilat, 46, quoted in  Women in the Mosque: Historical Perspectives on Segregation, Nevin Reda, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, vol. 21, no. 2, spring 2004,  p 88 ].

Did any woman lead prayer in which male participated in any point of history. I remember I read a piece by Dr. M. Hamidullah, Director of Islamic Centre Paris, sometimes in 1965-1966 in which he while replying a question by a lady, who came from Muslim family but her husband was a newly reverted Muslim, whether she could lead her husband in prayer for the fact that he has not yet learnt how to offer salah, Dr. Hamidullah replied: yes you can and then he narrated a Hadith. I am quoting Dr. Hamidullah from memory and I don’t have in my possession the material where I read it.  According to Hadith Prophet had commanded Umm Waraqah bint Abd Allah ibn al Harith al Ansari to lead people of her area (dar) in prayer. She had her own muadhdin, and she used to lead the people of her area (dar) [Al Banna, Fath, vol. 5, 7:1475-1480, quoted in Nevin Reda, Women in the Mosque: Historical Perspectives on Segregation, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, vol. 21, Spring 2004, no. 2, p 91]. The use of muadhdin indicates that she lead prayer in which a good number of Muslims were present.

The aforementioned Hadith of the Prophet is also recorded in the Hadith Compilation Sunan Abu Dawud which reads: The Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) used to visit her (Umm Waraqh daughter of Abd Allah b. al-Harith) at her house. He appointed a muadhdhin to call adhan for her; and he commanded her to lead the inmates of her in prayer. Abd al-Rahman said: I saw her muadhdhin who was an old man. On the basis of this tradition a group of scholars maintain that a woman can act as imam for the people who reside with her in her house, although they include males [The Imamate of Women, Chapter 212, Hadith No. 592, note 260, Sunan Abu Dawud, vol. 1, English tr. by Prof. Ahmad Hasan, Al-Madina Publications (P) Ltd., C 11 Preet Vihar, New Delhi- 110092, First Edition in India 1985, pp155-156].

I want to conclude with the observation that what has been discussed here is not the last word and Allah knows the best. Allah hu alam.

Article prepared on 1 July 2006.