Can women take positions of leadership and authority in Islam?

August 22, 2013

Quran and Pink Flowers Women Leaders

By Abu Amina Elias


Can women hold public positions of authority in Islam?


In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

It is permissible for a woman to be an authority and leader in a position for which she is qualified, although some positions are specific only to men such as the position of prayer leader and supreme commander of the armed forces.

Some classical scholars prohibited women from taking positions of authority and leadership based upon the statement of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him:

لَنْ يُفْلِحَ قَوْمٌ وَلَّوْا أَمْرَهُمْ امْرَأَةً

A people will not succeed who are commanded by a woman.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 4163, Grade: Sahih

These scholars understood this statement to be general in meaning and therefore they did not allow women to take any public position of authority. However, other scholars understood this statement to be specific to commanding the armed forces and therefore allowed women to hold the position of judge.

Ibn Hajar writes:

وَخَالَفَ ابْنُ جَرِيرٍ الطَّبَرِيُّ فَقَالَ يَجُوزُ أَنْ تَقْضِيَ فِيمَا تُقْبَلُ شَهَادَتُهَا فِيهِ وَأَطْلَقَ بَعْضُ الْمَالِكِيَّةِ الْجَوَازَ

Ibn Jareer At-Tabari disagreed with those who did not allow women to be judges and he said it is permissible for her to judge in matters in which her testimony is acceptable and some of the Maliki scholars gave them unrestricted permission to do so.

Source: Fath ul-Bari

Women are generally unqualified to perform the duties involved with commanding the armed forces or leading the ritual prayer, but they are qualified and allowed to perform other duties. In fact, women played a very important role in the development of the early Muslim community.

Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, appointed Samrah bint Nuhaik as overseer of the market.

Abu Balj Yahya reported:

رَأَيْتُ سَمْرَاءَ بِنْتَ نَهِيكٍ وَكَانَتْ قَدْ أَدْرَكَتِ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ عَلَيْهَا دِرْعٌ غَلِيظٌ وَخِمَارٌ غَلِيظٌ بِيَدِهَا سَوْطٌ تُؤَدِّبُ النَّاسَ وَتَأْمُرُ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَى عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ

I saw Samrah bint Nuhaik and she had known the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. She had on a thick corset and veil. In her hand was a whip which she used to discipline people, and she would enjoin good and forbid evil.

Source: Al-Mu’jam Al-Kabeer At-Tabarani 785, Grade: Hasan

Ibn Abd al-Barr said:

أدركت رَسُول اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وعمرت وكانت تمر فِي الأسواق وتأمر بالمعروف وتنهى عَنِ المنكر وتضرب الناس عَلَى ذلك بسوط كَانَ معها

She knew the Messenger of Allah during her lifetime. She would patrol the market while enjoining good and forbidding evil. She would discipline people with a whip that she had with her.

Source: Al-Isti’ab bil Ma’ruf 3197

Ibn Al-Jawzai said:

وكان عمر رضي الله عنه إذا دخل السوق دخل عليها

Umar ibn Al-Khattab would enter the market and he would come to her.

Source: Seerah Umar ibn Al-Kharrab 41

Women were among some of the most valuable religious scholars for the early Muslims.

Hafsa bint Umar, may Allah be pleased with her, was entrusted by Abu Bakr to safeguard the first complete written copy of the Quran.

Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, was one of the leading scholars of prophetic traditions and was considered an authority by the companions of the Prophet.

Abu Musa reported:

مَا أَشْكَلَ عَلَيْنَا أَصْحَابَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ حَدِيثٌ قَطُّ فَسَأَلْنَا عَائِشَةَ إِلَّا وَجَدْنَا عِنْدَهَا مِنْهُ عِلْمًا

We never had a new problem occur to us as the companions of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, except that we would ask Aisha and find with her some knowledge concerning it.

Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 3883, Grade: Sahih

Mu’adhah al-Adawiyyah was a narrator of prophetic traditions from the second generation of Islam who related sayings from Ali ibn Abu Talib, Aisha, and Hisham ibn Amir.

Amrah bint Abdur Rahman was a student of Aisha from the second generation of Islam who related sayings from Umm Salamah and Rafi ibn Khadeej and was considered a legal scholar in the city of Medina.

Hafsa bint Sireen was a student of Umm Atiyyah, Anas ibn Malik, and other companions of the Prophet. She was a legal scholar from the second generation of Islam and one of her students, Qatadah, is an important authority in the exegesis of the Quran.

There are many other women who were scholars in the early age of Islam and through the succeeding eras until today.

Women played an important role in supporting the Muslim community when they were under attack by the idolaters.

Anas ibn Malik reported:

كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَغْزُو بِأُمِّ سُلَيْمٍ وَنِسْوَةٍ مَعَهَا مِنْ الْأَنْصَارِ يَسْقِينَ الْمَاءَ وَيُدَاوِينَ الْجَرْحَى

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, would go into battle with Umm Sulaim and other women with her from the Ansar and they would give water and tend to the wounded.

Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1575, Grade: Sahih

There is no doubt that the support services of women were critical to the defense of Islam.

Women have an important role for consulting the Muslim leadership. The Prophet would consult his wives in the most sensitive matters among the Muslims. On the occasion of Al-Hudaybiyya, the Muslims were denied access to perform the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca as a condition for the peace treaty. The Prophet accepted this condition but the Muslims were largely upset and refused to leave. In such a difficult matter, the Prophet consulted his wife Umm Salamah about the best course of action.

Marwan reported: When the writing of the peace treaty was concluded the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said to his companions:

قُومُوا فَانْحَرُوا ثُمَّ احْلِقُوا

Get up and offer your sacrifices and shave your heads.

None of them stood up and the Prophet repeated his order three times. When none of them stood up, the Prophet left them and went to Umm Salamah and told her about the people’s attitude. Umm Salamah said:

يَا نَبِيَّ اللَّهِ أَتُحِبُّ ذَلِكَ اخْرُجْ ثُمَّ لاَ تُكَلِّمْ أَحَدًا مِنْهُمْ كَلِمَةً حَتَّى تَنْحَرَ بُدْنَكَ وَتَدْعُوَ حَالِقَكَ فَيَحْلِقَكَ

O prophet of Allah, would you like your order to be carried out? Go out and do not speak to them until you have offered your sacrifice and have called the barber to shave your head.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 2731, Grade: Sahih

The Prophet followed the advice of his wife and the companions began to make preparations to leave Mecca.

This incident is an important precedent for us because it demonstrates the value the Prophet placed on the consultation of his wives and women in general. Allah has commanded consultation among the believers and this is general to both men and women.

Allah said:

فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الْأَمْرِ

So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter.

Surah Ali Imran 3:159

Women even have the right to correct the Muslim leadership and the leadership has to be humble enough to accept it. In a famous incident, a woman once corrected Umar Ibn Al-Khattab during one of his sermons while he was the Caliph. Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

امْرَأَةٌ أَصَابَتْ وَرَجُلٌ أَخْطَأَ

The woman is correct and the man is mistaken.

In another narration, Umar said:

امْرَأَةٌ خَاصَمَتْ عُمَرَ فَخَصَمَتْهُ

The woman has disputed Umar and she has defeated him.

Source: Fath ul-Bari 4853

In modern practice, Muslim women perform many roles in society in the fields of religion, politics, science, medicine, education, police, the military, and other important functions. Muslim women provide important contributions to their countries and they should be valued for the services they provide.

Therefore, a Muslim woman is allowed to obtain any position of leadership and authority for which she is qualified, although some positions are specific only to men such as commander of the armed forces and prayer leader.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.