Woman Leadership in Islam: A Nigerian Perspective

I was at a conference organized by NMDC (Nigerian Muslim and Democracy Conference) on 14th April 2012. The theme was “The Political Future of Muslims in Democratic Nigeria”. This post is about one of the sessions titled “Muslim Women and Political Participation in Nigeria”.

A paper was presented and discussion followed. The attitude to Muslim Women Leadership in Islam is an interesting one, especially given the socio-cultural realities we find ourselves in recent history. Some Muslims see no difference in woman-leadership compared to man-leadership while others have basis to oppose woman-leadership. The latter group would rather not vote when all candidates are women. However, many Muslims fall somewhere between these two views.

To capture the situation, I will use four characters that were actually present. They were not the only participants but their contributions directed the discussion. The names are fictional (The choice of names is to clearly show sex of characters). First the discussion is presented summarized to capture the important elements at the cost of the statement’s precision. Secondly, I respond to the issues raised while accommodating for the attitude of Muslim-majority towards certain points of views.

Terms (for the sake of this post):
Sahih: Authentic, Reliable, Sound
Sunnah: The sayings, practices and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
Hadith: Report of the sayings, practices and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
Sahih Bukhari: The most venerated collection of Sahih Hadiths. Bukhari is the name of the collector
Companion: A Muslim companion of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)

Discussion Scene

Asiya: (while presenting her paper… ) There is consensus among Muslim scholars that women can participate in politics. There is no Sahih Hadith that is opposed to women leadership.

Bala: I will like to look at a statement Asiya made which is that “there is no sahih Hadith that is opposed to women leadership”. Now we need to be very careful when we pass judgment on a Hadith. There is, in fact, a sahih Hadith in sahih Bukhari which says “A nation that has entrusted its affairs to a woman can never be successful.” The criticism on the Hadith is that the person who narrated it from the Prophet, called Abu Bakrah, was punished by Umar (A caliph at one time) for lying; and thus this Hadith will not be considered as sahih even though it is in a sahih collection. The implication of this is also that any Hadith reported by this Abu Bakrah must not be accepted, that would be unfortunate. Remember that all companions of the Prophet are considered reliable narrators of Hadith. Given the broadness of Hadith Sciences, one passing a judgment on Hadith authenticity must acquire the authority before doing so. We are talking about dismissing a Hadith for god’s sake! Hadith is only second to the Quran.

Carla: A good point by Bala. This criticism that Bala talks about was put out by the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi. It turns out she is the only one (perhaps the first) to put this criticism in her book. Now this criticism is very popular but it all goes back to her book. Knowing the types of views Fatima Mernissi espouses, this criticism cannot stand; her views are deviant from Islam.

Carla (continues): The second line of defense used by supporters of women leadership is referring to the story of Bilqees (queen of sheba) from the Quran. The story tells us of Bilqees being a ruler. But that was before (and at the time) she met Suleiman (Solomon). But she wasn’t ruling after their marriage, hence after her conversion to the religion of Suleiman (Islam). What does that tell us about a Muslim-woman in leadership.  Finally, I agree with Bala’s point. I believe it is apt that we get scholars to look into this matter and issue a fatwa. They are better qualified to take such decisions.

David: Well, the reality of sidelining women from politics is that the society is neglecting half of its constituents. Even Abu A’la Mawdudi supported a woman political candidate in Pakistan. And it is not because he does not know the Hadith (which opposes woman leadership). He made a simple reasoning: decided to support her (over the male opponent) because she was going to support the values of Islam more. They simply decided on this criterion and they found the solution in a woman politician.

Carla pointed out that the woman that Abu A’la Mawdudi supported turned out to be failure of a leader. Carla’s point may be that if woman leadership is to be judge on precedent, the modern woman leadership has turned out a failure.  Perhaps Carla has ignored the vast library of male-leadership failure which history has been very generous; assuming that was Carla’s intent. Consensus was amicably reached which was that scholars need to sit and deliberate this matter further.

Approach to Response

First it is only fair to point out that the characters were responding to each other and therefore didn’t have much time to consider their statements before putting them forward. This may also leave them with the tendency of generalization, as can be traced in the conversation. Unlike me, I took everything in, came back, rested then started typing. Also, it may be that I have not understood their points properly but I try to capture what I understood as best as possible. Since I’m using fictional names, no offence may be directed at any of the real characters.

I will refrain from quoting Asma Barlas and Amina Wadud as much as possible because of the general attitude (of audience that were present) towards them may be apprehensive. This is deduced from the attitude towards Fatima Mernissi; who is probably bundled in the same category as the other two. I can’t say much about Fatima Mernissi but I know Asma’ Barlas writes and argues well, and has dealt with this issue extensively (and well I might add). In fact Asma’ Barlas repeatedly tries to clarifies her position as distinct from the “feminist Muslim”. She must have thought herself as a “Muslim feminist” instead. I think Amina Waduud has valid arguments as well, but I reserve my comment on her action when she led Friday prayers (including men). I will refrain from referring to these female scholars that induce apprehension.

Response to Bala

Bala rightly cautioned on the need for sincere work/research before evaluating a Hadith as weak or not. Due to the differences among scholarly opinions on the strength of a Hadith, there is basis for coming to different conclusions on any Hadith by different people. It should be recalled that even when Bukhari completed his collection he passed it to prominent scholars of the time to verify (including Ahmad ibn Hanbal) who identified four Hadiths as weak, but Bukhari maintained them because he was convinced they were not. Bukhari is also said to have recognized his human ability to err in his introductory note. Another fact is from the works of Hadith scholars that have come after Bukhari: about 80 out of 430 narrators found in Bukhari collection have been questioned or labeled weak transmitters; secondly, about 89 Hadiths have been identified to have some defect. This is not to bring down the esteem of Bukhari collection (especially relative to others) but acknowledge plurality of opinion concerning even the most esteemed collection. Thus I think careful research is a prerequisite but we are entitled to our decisions afterwards. (source of facts: Mohammad Hashim Kamali; Hadith Studies )

Bala made a point that (all) the companions of the prophet are considered reliable narrators. This unquestioned elevation of companions of the prophet is a foundation for Muslims of ahl-al-sunnah/ahl-al-salaf persuasion, and thus Bala’s argument may easily stand for a person of such credo. But due to the emphasis the Hadith science places on reliability (righteousness, memory retention etc) of narrators, it could be disastrous to take a whole generation and credulously permit their contributions. The methodology of Hadith science already gives many privileges to the companions. The first is that on the list of ranking reliable narrators, companions are ranked the highest; but they have to be reliable in practice. The second is in the categorization of Hadith Marfuu’ and Mawquf.

Marfu’ is a Hadith that is not explicitly attributed to the prophet but since it is related by a companion, who would have only learnt it from the prophet, then the Hadith is elevated to having been a Sunnah of the prophet. Mawquf is a Hadith with its chain of narration being suspended at the level of a (reliable) companion but not attributed to the prophet; Mawquf remains unattributed to the prophet usually because of the weight of the subject matter. This latter categorization shows that even in a companion-friendly Hadith science, the companions are not infallible.

Response to Carla on Fatima Mernissi

Carla took two positions: that the criticism by Fatima Mernissi should not hold; and that the oft-quoted reference to Bilqees (queen of sheba) in the Quran does not support woman-leadership but restricts it if anything. We will deal with the issue of Fatima Mernissi first then the issue of Bilqees.

Fatima Mernissi, the Morrocan Islamic feminist, had this to say about the Hadith opposing women leadership in four points:

  1. The narrator of the Hadith was Abu Bakrah, who was once flogged by ‘Umar ibn al Khattab for giving false testimony (thereby invalidating him as a reliable narrator according to the principles of Imam Malik).
  2. The words of the Hadith were supposed to have been said by the Prophet (saw) in regard to a change of power in Persia (an enemy nation about to be ruled by a woman).
  3. However, the Hadith was not pronounced by Abu Bakrah until some 25 years later, after ‘Aisha had been defeated at the Battle of the Camel (which she fought against Ali, a man).
  4. Mernissi argues that Abu Bakrah appears to have opportunistically fabricated the Hadith to increase his standing with Ali, who he had failed to support before the battle.

The points made by Mernissi (except point 4 which is clearly an opinion) can be verified by recourse to original research. Therefore whatever her standing (to orthodoxy) she and her verifiable-claims should be differentiated to arrive at the truth. Al Ghazzali made this point clear when he differentiates a potty from the content of the potty; people may judge clean water in a potty as filthy, even if it is brand new. But according to Imam Malik, it stands that if point 1 can be proven, then the Hadith (and all Abu Bakrah’s narrations) should be discarded. If point 2 is proven, it will contextualize the Hadith as referring to a specific historical event. If point 3 is proven, it will weaken the Hadith. There are two ways to go about proving these: recourse to Fatima Mernissi’s original source using her book reference OR recourse to biographies of Hadith transmitters (‘ilm tarikh wal ruwat) which is a rich subject on its own.

Another interesting perspective is that the Hadith is a Fard Hadith (narrated by only one companion). Therefore all references to this Hadith goes back to one person; Abu Bakrah. Coincidentally Carla’s criticism of Mernissi is that Mernissi is the only one who claims that Abu Bakrah was punished for lying (and the othe three criticisms). We could say Mernissi’s criticism is a Fard criticism. But should this matter? Yes. Firstly, if Abu Bakrah is to be proven unreliable, then that Hadith cannot be taken as sahih. Secondly, in contrast to scholars of Hadith, the scholars of Islamic jurisprudence place emphasis on the number of separate chains of transmission (human transmitters) a Hadith goes through. They have made the distinction of Mutawatir Hadith and Ahad Hadith. The Hadith in question falls under Ahad Hadith, which makes it less reliable for drawing rulings. When we say women should not lead, we are deriving a ruling and thus an issue of jurisprudence.

It should also be noted that Bukhari and Mernissi could both be right yet, the Hadith may be faulty. Bukhari’s focus was on the chain of transmitters; whether they were reliable. Bukhari could have approved of Abu Bakrah for a number of reasons: high esteem of the companions, lack of knowledge on Abu Bakrah’s alleged faults, indifference to Abu Bakrah’s faults if insufficiently proved, not a follower of the principles of Imam Malik. Whereas Fatima Mernissi did not criticize the chain of transmitters, but she criticized the source (first transmitter). If the source is faulty, then the transmitters reliably transmitted a faulty Hadith.

Response to Carla on Bilqees

Secondly, Carla mentioned the case of Bilqees as unfit example for Muslim women because Bilqees was not a Muslim while she was a queen. That argument may hold. But in the context of this argument, it is not Bilqees’ example that matters as much but her capability/achievements. The Hadith by Abu Bakrah posits that a state/nation under a woman’s rule cannot prosper. But going back to the Quran (quote below)  we can see the graphical illustration of a prosperous nation under a woman. In fact everything mentioned about the nation seems very impressive except that they worshiped the sun; in other words their religion. Since Bilqees has proved capable, the Qur’an draws our attention to her faith. Perhaps capability should come before faith when Muslims are choosing a leader.

                The Quran gives account of the quoting the reporter telling the King Suleiman (Solomon) about the land (sheba) he had visited “I found (there) a woman ruling over them and provided with every requisite; and she has a magnificent throne. I found her and her people worshipping the sun besides Allah. Satan has made their deeds seem pleasing to their eyes, and has kept them away from the Path so – so they receive no guidance -” (Quran 27:23-24 Yusuf Ali Translation)

To further highlight Bilqees’ capability, Quran (27:29-35) shows her as a wise queen who consults her chiefs before making a decision. Consultation (shura) is a much cherished attribute of leadership the Quran (and Hadiths) encourage. Thus, we have the Quran showing us exemplary leadership qualities/capabilities… in a woman.

On a related note, I am yet to find any exegesis of these verses (and what follows) that Suleiman indeed married Bilqees OR that she was not ruling her kingdom after her acceptance of Islam. A probable source of these additions may be from Jewish and Biblical sources (Isra’iliyaat), which Muslims are cautioned against. I have been advised to check exegesis of Ibn katheer and Al Qurtubi because they are known to recourse to Hadiths and reason instead. I will check and then add to the comments section at end of this post. But why are these details of marriage or continued-ruling important? Carla pointed the answer in saying that Bilqees lost her ruling power after marriage to Suleiman. If they never got married, then it must have been simply a game of thrones. In Quran 27:36-37, Suleiman expressed that he was not interested in the throne but rather their submission (to the rule of God instead of religion of Sun worship). Perhaps Bilqees continued ruling her kingdom anyway.

Continuing on the controversial Hadith… Some may argue that in the Hadith, the prophet’s statement is for the future (from the time of the prophet). In that case, the Hadith may be classified with other Hadiths describing end of days… most of which do not stand to be used for legal rulings. This category of Hadiths is criticized by Hadith scholars as the Hadiths of story-tellers (because of its spectacles) or at other times under al-targheeb-wal-tarheeb (encouragement and discouragement). However the latter category is mostly for Hadiths on morals and warnings. Thus, a Hadith on future prophesy doesn’t not qualify to be used for legal rulings.

Response to David on Mawdudi

As for Mawdudi’s decision to support a woman politician, it seems on a reasonable criterion. Someone at the conference (where all this happened) concurred with Mawdudi also by telling me that Mawdudi chose the lesser of two evils. I don’t believe there was any evil, at least discernible to us, there were just two candidates who were yet to prove themselves. Oh one is controversial because “history” doesn’t record a lot of “her” type of stories.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Woman Leadership in Islam: A Nigerian Perspective

  1. Ibrahim Haruna

    What i think Muslims should be concerned about and the women in particular is “what kind of politics are they playing, how do they get involved in the usual Nigerian political struggles”? It was verified by majority of the contributors at the event because i was fortunate to attend this particular presentation that the Bukhari’s hadith on women’s participation/involvement in leadership is authentic and should be respected. Aside what the hadith says, majority of the points raised by contributors( women and men) is the need to take proper cautioning in politics especially as it involves women. Others also think that a fatwa should be passed on women participation so that women will be aware of their roles in politics.
    personally, what i could derive from their various points are:
    1. Considering the present situation in the Nigerian political struggle, it is not ideal and Islamic for women to get invloved in politics esp. contesting an election.
    2. Women who get involved in politics are more likely to be exposed to abuses by men. A woman according to Islamic teachings is not expected to abandon her household because she has to be in one political meeting (mid nights often times) or another. This happens every now and then in our political settings.
    3. There is need to redefine women’s roles in politics. I do not agree that women should be totally faced out in political activities. What i propose is that their roles should not involve contesting elections or engaging in too many political activities. Muslim women should be given roles such as ministerial appointments, that do not invlove much power struggles. One thing we should put into consideration is women(non muslims) will continue to do politics and hold political offices. If we must expect Muslim communities to be represented esp when it comes to policies concerning the girl child, our women should not totally be condemed from political activities.
    In general, there is need for women to redefine their roles in the society because from history, women are not known to be at the forefront of leadership. Aisha (r.a) was a woman of high intergrity and was respected even by men and she exhibited several characters of a leader. However, she was well guided. Our women must be carefully guided and their involvement in politics should be minimised but not totally discouraged. The Prophet always emphasised on protecting the women, if our women becomes this exposed as a result of political participation, i think there is a problem that the muslim communities should address. Thank you Bilal.

  2. xarrah

    …totally agree with d last comment by Ibrahim..i think d most important thing is educatin d women on deir basic primary roles..dat wich dey cant avoid..wen dey understand dat..it’l proably help dem in makin a list of priortised activities…bcuz in d 21st century, women r made to believ dat men r d standard,thus; strivin 2 do wat a man does(aimin at d standard)..muslim women need to acknwlg deir values,be aware of d true standard…dereby getn rid of d cliché “wat a man can do,a woman can do better”…

    • Yes, I also think MuslimWomen should revise their standards away from a Man because it tends to create Women who are fanatically-Men. But of course there is always the challenge of the reality where women are considered second class (even though with good intentions at times) but unfounded in Quranic teachings; with this I understand how difficult it can be to try to defy a Man’s world without playing a man…

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