An Appeal for Tolerance Regarding Established Views on Women in Islam *
Abdur Rahman Muhammad
I am writing this article as an appeal to my Muslim brothers and sisters as it relates to the status of women in Islam. I am an African- American brother and took my shahada five years ago. Upon becoming a Muslim, one of the first books I purchased was the STRUGGLE OF MUSLIM WOMEN by Br. Kaukab Siddique. It would be many years before I would understand the significance of the issues taken up between its pages. The points which would like to discuss can best be illustrated by an incident which confronted me recently. Not too long ago, I attended an Islamic conference in Chicago which was well attended by many sincere, committed Muslims. I occupied a room in the hotel with some American brothers of Pakistani descent. One night, after the day’s events, a heated discussion developed between the brothers pertaining to an opinion held by one of the scholars in the conference. This particular alim was of the view that Islam permits a woman to be a ruler of the state. These brothers were incensed by this ruling, and one even went so far as to say that he “detested” it. According to him, the only obligation of a Muslim woman is to OBEY her husband.
Being a convert to Islam (and therefore not carrying this kind of historical baggage), I found it very difficult to identify with the rage that these brothers were experiencing. Armed with the information contained in Dr. Siddique’s book, I proceeded to share with them what I believed to be the truth concerning this issue. I pointed out to them that there is no verse in the Qur’an which forbids a woman from being a ruler. On the contrary, Allah relates to us the story of Bilquees, a woman who ruled over a mighty nation. She accepted Islam after being impressed by the character of Prophet Suleiman (as). Here was an opportune context for Allah to make female rulership forbidden, if this was His Will.l It is the only instance in which this subject is referred to in the Qur’an, yet instead of condemning this great woman, He (swt) draws our attention to her noble rule which was carried out through the process of shoora (mutual consultation).
I then examined with them the evidence found in the Sunna concerning this subject. One should not understand at this juncture in the story that these brothers took this information sitting down. Indeed, they were quite visceral in their disagreement with my position. There is only one hadith which can be interpreted to mean that a woman’s rulership is haram, but upon closer scrutiny of this hadith, we notice inconsistencies in its chain of narrators which should be taken seriously by those who choose to present it as a proof (THE STRUGGLE OF MUSLIM WOMEN, page 52). The hadith is found in Bukhari. The Prophet is alleged to have said: “The people who install a woman as their leader would not meet with success.” Even if we accept the wording of this hadith at face value (leaving aside for a moment its problematic isnad), it avails itself of several different meanings. These words were supposedly uttered upon hearing that the Persians had appointed the daughter of their king as their ruler. Consider the context. Did the Prophet mean that it is haram for a woman to be a ruler? Or did the Prophet mean, in effect: The Persians will meet with ruin because the Qur’an promises their defeat at the hands of the Romans (30:1), simply using the personality of their ruler to identify the people who would fulfill this prophecy?
I kindly explained to them that this is the reason why some Muslim scholars (including the very famous historian Tabari) support the view that a woman can lead the community. My point was simply to convey to them the fact that this issue is an invidious one, and that what is required is an open mind, not the dogma which has accrued over the centuries. Unfortunately, my brothers were so emotional that they could not rationally consider the evidence…
With all of the love and respect that is due to my brothers and sisters from overseas, I must remind them that we Muslims in America accepted Islam from its root sources, the Qur’an and the Sunna. If an opinion is presented to us as being definitive, it must be backed up with categorical and unambiguous statements from these sources. One thing that I have come to realize since becoming a Muslim is that there are many points of view and historical perspectives. This being the case, I have learned to critically examine all sides of any issue and refrain from taking hard line positions, even when I have reached my own conclusions. (Allah knows best.)
It seems to me that if a woman is not too fragile to fight and die in jihad (3:159) then certainly she should be able to handle the affairs of the state. The scholars of today presume to know more than those who were nominated by Hazrat ‘Umar (ra) for the office of Khalifah (Hazrat Zubair and Hazrat Talha) both of whom followed the leadership of Hazrat ‘Aisha (ra) in the Battle of the Camel. Imam Abu Hanifa said “Those who believe in Allah and His messenger and turn to our Qibla are of us.” The Jmam was trying to stress tolerance in the ummah. It is when we start detesting the substantiated opinions of our brothers and sisters that we begin fighting one another. This need for tolerance is especially true when it comes to restoring those rights to women that were stolen from them after monarchy polluted the Islamic system of life.
Originally published in the January 1991 issue of NEW TREND, and the July-August 1991 print edition of The American Muslim
Abdur Rahman Muhammad, Howard University