This article is a comment on Abubakar Ahmad Gada’s interesting write-up on the ”Political Irrelevance of Women in Islam”( Weekly Trust, October 5, 2001) which in turn was a contribution to an on-going discussion of the subject sparked off by Hajiya Bilkisu’s earlier article in the Paper.
Mallam Abubakar, the Imam of NNDC mosque, Kaduna presented arguments in his write-up which, to be fair, correctly reflect mainstream thinking in traditional scholarship. One only wished the respected Imam had shown more circumspection and less exuberance in brandishing untenable empirical examples, particularly in view compelling evidence of outstanding women leaders even in contemporary history.
Take, for instance, Indira Ghandi in India and how she routed Pakistan; Or Golda Maier in Israel and how she defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan; Or Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher and how she defeated the Argentines in the Falklands in addition to breaking the back of the almighty Labour Unions at home.
Of course there will always be examples of female leaders who have failed but then there are many more woeful examples of failure among their male opposite numbers. Evidently, examples such as those proffered by Gada, even if we accepted their questionable soundness, can never be a logical basis for establishing a causal link between gender and performance in political office.
The central message of the Imam’s write-up, which this paper addresses, is that the leadership of women is prohibited by Islam. The basis for this assertion is that ” the Holy Prophet has in a hadith emphatically stated that any society which has its leadership under a woman will never progress.” In this paper I intend first to discuss the various positions taken by scholars on this hadith and, secondly, to subject traditional thought to critique.
The term ‘critique’ in social theory, to pre-empt misunderstanding, is not exactly synonymous with ‘criticism’ as employed in everyday English. Critical social theory does not so much seek to repudiate an existing theory as to set out clearly the limits of its validity. Mainly associated with Marx, who himself learnt from Kant and Hegel and bequeathed his method to latter day theorists particularly of the ‘Frankfurt School’ (including names like Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and, with certain qualifications, Habermas) the critique is neither pure philosophy nor pure science but something in-between. An argument’s popularity among the faithful is not necessarily based at all times on superior validity of its truth-claims. In reality, an argument may find acceptance because of its instrumentality in validating our pre-conceptions on the subject and its compatibility with the concrete reality which we inhabit or seek to bring about. As argued by Jurgen Habermas in his Knowledge and Human Interests, the conceptual structures of human knowledge are determined by interests that are deeply anchored in the solid existence of human beings as such. Only through a reflective examination of the process of knowing may we grasp these cognitive interests as what he calls “quasi-transcendental” conditions for the possibility of knowledge. An authentic saying, or hadith of the prophet retains, for all Muslims the transcendental quality and aprioristic claim of all revelation. Yet its interpretation necessarily, even if unknowingly, reflects a social reality that may in fact be distorted, an alienated and impoverished version of what it could become. All too often in intra-Islamic discourses, the contingent element of human consciousness is pretended away and the argument is presented as a timeless, eternal and Divine injunction. A critique of such an argument exposes its pseudo-objectivity and critically illuminates the underlying reality of alienation that provides the thinker’s consciousness with its conceptual categories. This emphasis on the need to transcend the superficial and examine, from an epistemological perspective, the inextricable linkage between the law and the social, was the axis around which I constructed my arguments in an earlier intervention on this subject entitled ”SHARIAH AND THE WOMAN QUESTION” In this paper I return to the same theme.
Let me first state the hadith. Imam Bukhari reports from Abu Bakrah the following: “Allah provided me with considerable benefit during the battle of the camel with one word (or one statement). When news reached the prophet (S.A.W.) that the Persians had appointed Chosroe’s daughter as their ruler, he said: ”A nation which placed its affairs in the hands of a woman shall never prosper!” Those who claim that the leadership of women is ”unIslamic” rely on this hadith. In reality, all that can be correctly affirmed is that some scholars relied on this hadith to disenfranchise women from leadership. There has never been unanimity on this matter among scholars, past and present, and the very inference of disenfranchisement is suspect. Let me explain.
From the earliest days of Muslim scholarship, even those jurists who implicitly accept the hadith above as containing some injunction have differed on the meaning of ”placing affairs in the hands of a woman”. Some scholars prohibit women from all public duties. Abu Hanifa permits a woman to hold public office, even to be a judge in matters in which her testimony is admissible- that is all cases other than those involving fixed penalties (hudud) and retaliation (qisas). Ibn Hazm in his Muhalla, allows a woman to hold every office apart from that of the Head of State based on this hadith. At the “liberal” extreme, Hafiz Ibn Hajr indicates in Fathul Bari that Imam Ibn Jarir Al-Tabari not only supports the unrestricted appointment of woman to judgeship, he permitted also her appointment as Head of State. A similar view is reported from Imam Malik Ibn Anas and adopted by some Maliki jurists (although the popular view in the mazhab is contrary to this).
The first point is therefore to note that there was no unanimity even among the earliest scholars on this matter, although the vast majority (for reasons we will presently discuss) barred women from the office of the Head of State. It is also not true that the leadership of Muslims by women is a modern phenomenon caused by “westernisation.” Various Muslim communities at various times have been de-facto or de-jure ruled by women. A group of Kharijites, the Shuhaybiyyah, held that women are eligible for the office of Head of State as recorded by Ibn Hazm in Kitabul Fisal. According to historical texts, not only did they appoint their Imam’s daughter as his successor, the lady delivered sermons from the pulpit and led them in prayer and on the battle- field. The famous thirteenth century Mamluk queens Radhia Sultana of Delhi and Shajaratul-Durr of Egypt were not the only women sovereigns over Muslim communities. A whole book has been written by Fatima Mernissi, entitled The Forgotten Queens of Islam, in which she covers from historical texts the lives of so many such queens in Muslim history. Ibn Battuta tells us how for forty years (from 1347 to 1388), Muslims in the Maldives were ruled by queens. The first was Sultana Khadija the daughter of Sultan Salah al-Din Albendjaly who ruled for 33 years. Her two sisters, Sultana Myriam and Sultana Fatima, followed in succession. Djajadimingrat lists 34 sovereigns who ruled over the Muslim kingdom of Atjeh in Indonesia between the 16th and 20th centuries. Four princesses succeeded each other as queens between 1641 and 1699. First was Sultana Tadj al-‘Alam Saffiyat al Din Shah (the 14th sovereign of the dynasty) who was succeeded, in order, by Sultana Nur al-‘Alam Nakiyyat al-Din Shah, ‘Inayat Shah Zakiyyat al-Din Shah and Kamalat Shah.
The Shiite dynasty of Yemen also produced two queens, Asma Bint Shihab al Sulayhiyyah (d.1087) and ‘Arwa Bint Ahmad al-Sulayhiyya(d.1138). Each of them took the title al- Sayyida al-hurra and had the khutbah (sermon) said in her name. There were also the Mongol Khatuns like Kutlugh Katun and Safwat al-Din Khatun. These are just examples but they suffice to refute the claims of those who believe the likes of Benazir Bhutto were the first women to rule Muslim lands. Women have ruled Muslim communities and their leadership was accepted and respected by the scholars of those communities.
Where does all this leave Abu Bakrah’s hadith? Contemporary scholarship articulates its rejection of the hadith as evidence barring women from leadership from different perspectives. The first, which for want of a better term I will call ‘feminist’, rejects the authenticity of the hadith in its entirety. This view is represented by Fatima Mernissi in her ground breaking book, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women Rights in Islam. Mernissi in this book does the unspeakable by questioning directly the reliability of a companion of the Prophet as a narrator of hadith. She suggests that Abu Bakrah, a former slave, joined Islam because of the promise of manumission. She argues that he prevaricated between joining Ali and joining Aisha in the civil war, and then after Aisha lost the battle he opportunistically ‘remembered’ a hadith spoken 25 years earlier to curry favour with the winning side. Finally she stresses that the second Caliph Umar had ordered Abu Bakrah flogged for false testimony. She therefore rejects the authority of Abu Bakrah and with it the evidence of the hadith since to her it is a fabrication. I have not independently checked the accuracy of Mernissi’s biographical renditions although she has duly annotated her sources. Her conclusion on Abu Bakra is, however, unlikely to hold water with scholars of hadith who start from the premise that “all the Companions are just.”
The second group adopts a different line of argument. Exemplified here by Justice Aftab Hussain in his book “Status of Women in Islam”, the central argument of this group is that it is clear that Abu Bakrah did not understand from the words he narrated an injunction against the leadership of women. He was a companion of Aisha and followed her and fought among her troops and returned with her to Madina after her defeat. He remembered this hadith as he stated during the Battle of the Camel and yet neither left her side nor advised anyone else to. This group says that to insist that the hadith is an injunction against female leadership places this companion of the Prophet in very unbecoming light. Is it possible that a true companion would remember an injunction of the holy Prophet and proceed in disobeying it as if he had never remembered? Would he be so impudent as to subsequently announce this recollection without any explanation for his non-compliance?
The third group takes a different course. This group accepts the hadith as authentic but insists that it was a prophecy relating to the Kingdom of Persia and had no legal implications beyond that. The argument of this group is, in my view, best presented by Hiba Ra’uf ‘Izzat in her book Al-Mar-ah wa ‘l-‘Amal as-Siyasi. This group argues that the hadith must be read along with related ones since, according to Hafiz Ibn Hajr, it merely completes the story of the Chosroe who tore the Prophet’s letter.
Al-Bukhari reported three traditions connected with this episode, two of which were in the chapter on “Letter of the Prophet to Chosroe and Caesar”. Abu Bakra’s hadith is No 4425. The preceding hadith, No 4424, was reported from Ibn Abbas who said that “the Prophet of Allah sent Abdullah Ibn Huzafa with his letter to Chosroe and commanded him to hand it to the leader of Bahrain for delivery to Chosroe. When Chosroe read it he tore it. I believe Said Ibn Musayyab said: ‘Then the Prophet prayed to Allah that he tear them up completely’.” The third hadith is No 6639 reported by Bukhari in the chapter on “how the oath of the Prophet was” and it goes:”When Caesar dies there will be no Caesar after him. When Chosroe dies there will be no Chosroe after him. I swear by He in whose hand is my life, you will spend their treasures in the path of Allah!”
These are the three hadiths reported by Bukhari on Chosroe and the Persians and their consistency is self -evident. In one he prays to Allah to destroy the Chosroe’s dynasty the way he tore the letter. The second predicts that there will be no Chosroe after him and the Ummah will inherit the Kingdom’s treasures. The third, Abu Bakra’s, predicts that the Persians (who were still being ruled by Chosroe’s dynasty) would not prosper. To extend this last hadith’s scope to all societies ruled by women is refuted by the context. In addition it is refuted by Qur’anic evidence on the queen of Sheba (Al Naml: 28-44). Any one who reads those verses can see that they refer to a people who prospered under a wise and powerful female sovereign. It is also refuted by the compelling evidence of history. England prospered under Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth I. So did Russia under Catherine the Great, Spain under Isabella and Zazzau under Queen Amina. We may now conclude.
It is evident that different scholars have interpreted this hadith in different ways. It is also evident, that strictly on the basis of truth-claims, the assertion that a particular position on this matter is the “Islamic” position, is presumptuous and suspect. As mentioned earlier, however, there are other dimensions for evaluating cognitive propositions. A Muslim who accepts the essentially inferior status of woman by Divine decree, or at least sees nothing wrong with according her a public status below that of man is not loathe to accept the interpretation which precludes her from political leadership. Yet this choice is to him “Islamic” only because it conforms to his preconception and presupposition of the Islamic position on gender relations. Another Muslim who sees Islam as an essentially emancipating and egalitarian faith accepts an interpretation which validates and concurs with his own subjective predisposition. He rejects the traditional interpretation only because he considers the subjection of women a historical aberration, an evanescent feature of a society striving to attain, but still short of realizing, its true potential.
In the final analysis, the real battle is not one of theological niceties and the regurgitation of metaphysical postulates. It is one of the ‘desublimation of reason’, its extraction from obstruse and abstruse mythology and its concrete embodiment in the fabric of social relations. The task of critique is to expose the fallacy of claims to superior objectivity, and reveal the intricate connections between religious teaching, as distinct from religion, and the ubiquitous consciousness emanating from social conditions. And this, difficult as it is, must be the lodestar of the progressive Muslim intellectual.