Islamic stance on women as heads of states

The following Hadith is troubling to some people:

عَنْ أَبِي بَكْرَةَ، قَالَ لَقَدْ نَفَعَنِي اللَّهُ بِكَلِمَةٍ أَيَّامَ الْجَمَلِ لَمَّا بَلَغَ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنَّ فَارِسًا مَلَّكُوا ابْنَةَ كِسْرَى قَالَ‏ لَنْ يُفْلِحَ قَوْمٌ وَلَّوْا أَمْرَهُمُ امْرَأَةً ‏

Narrated Abu Bakra: During the battle of al-Jamal, Allah benefited me with a Word (I heard from the Prophet). When the Prophet (ﷺ) heard the news that the people of the Persia had made the daughter of Khosrau their queen, he said, “Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.” [Sahih al-Bukhari 7099]

In the past, the scholars took this at face value; however, in modern times, some people attempt to explain this Hadith in a context and state that this was specific to the Persian Empire and that the Prophet (ﷺ) did not mean that a woman head of state will cause failure to the state but what he meant was this: this nation (the Persian Empire), that has just appointed a woman as their queen, will never succeed. By this reasoning, they argue that the mentioning of the woman as the queen was not the primary message but that it was an identifying factor. This is, however, a modern reading of the text while the classical scholars have had a consensus that a woman cannot be a head of a state in Islamic law. The Hanafi school of thought slightly differs in this matter and proposes that a woman can become a judge while the other schools disagree.[1]

In order to understand this Hadith properly, the proper context needs to be understood well. The world has changed drastically over the centuries. Let’s get on the same page first and then disagree, if you wish.

The Islamic system is one that goes for perfection and continuous improvement. The Islamic political system believes in merit and having the best people for the tasks – wrong people in the right places results in disaster and Islam is against it.[2] In Islam, the leader has to be the best man of the nation and this was practiced fairly regularly in the past as well on both bigger and smaller scales. Even now we see that in tribal cultures, the tribal chief is the best man in the tribe; his leadership automatically attracts everyone towards him and he emerges as their leader.

What does the ‘best man’ mean? The best man refers to an ideal combination of all the good qualities including height and good looks[3], strength and bravery, communication and oratory skills, insight and decision making among others. Good leaders also have specific skills such as focus, charisma, confidence, openness, integrity, inspiration, passion, innovation, patience, stoicism, managerial competence, authenticity, open-mindedness, decisiveness, positivity, generosity, persistence, insightfulness, accountability, restlessness and communication among others.

An important quality of the leader is that he is a self-made man and comes from the grassroots level. This is such an important aspect that many kings in the past provided tough trainings to their sons, sent them away for long intervals, provided them opportunities to develop managerial competence by providing them governorship, or similar mini-rule, to train them before the bigger role. Being born with a silver spoon in the mouth is usually a significant a drawback for one to become the best man of the nation.

One may say that in modern systems[4], many of these skills are not essential and if you are a billionaire by birth or are the wife of an ex-president, then you are good enough to be the head of a state. This is an absurd statement to begin with. Moreover, Islam does not believe in the system where votes are counted instead of weighed.[5]

Now let us ignore everything for a moment and allow genuine competition in these fields. Women competing with men in all these aspects in a system of ‘equality of opportunity’ as opposed to ‘equality of outcome’ would be disadvantaged. A male cadet is much more likely to become a general as opposed to a female one. If you are the kind of person pushing for more visibility of women at the workplace, you would be the kind of person pushing for ‘equality of outcome’ and going against merit; moreover, if you push for such an agenda in fields that are ruled by men and suit their nature (for example mechanics), you would not only be pushing for ‘equality of outcome’ but would also be doing gross injustice to both men and women. If you let things flow on their own, it is near to impossible for a woman to compete with men in purely masculine roles and to beat them to become the head of a state. The same is true for men; they cannot compete with women in roles that suit the female nature. A corrupt system that does not honor merit would, however, allow unfair advantage to incompetent people.

Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid. [Albert Einstein]

If we carry on with the example of genuine competition but within an Islamic context as well, then we see that women are again disadvantaged because women and men have different roles [*][*]. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that a woman is able to beat men in their roles, can the Hadith’s ruling be dropped and the woman made the head of a state? Although it is impossible, it is a good hypothetical question. If a woman can beat men in an overall combination of strength, bravery, insightfulness and other skills, then this shows that the men of that nation are not up to the mark proving true the statement of the Prophet (ﷺ): Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler. If that woman, in this hypothetical situation, is genuinely better than the men who are also very capable, then this would mean that she would be going against her fitrah (natural state upon which one is created by God) which automatically makes her unsuitable for the role. Moreover, one woman going against her fitrah would not change the behavior and thinking of the entire nation.[6] Perhaps this is one of the reasons why many in the West are working so hard to change the fitrah and aggressively working to defend and promote immoral and unnatural relationships, gender identities, and gender roles.

We, therefore, learn that the statement of the Prophet (ﷺ) makes sense in religious as well as secular terms: Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.

Having said that, it must be mentioned that women are not prevented from leadership roles per se. If they run their own companies, Islam does not object to them for that. Islam sets modesty guidelines for everyone’s own good and leadership for women within those guidelines is healthy for the society.

Following are some objections raised against the Islamic stance

What about the Queen of Sheba?

The incident between Suleiman (عليه السلام) and the Queen of Sheba is not the best refutation to the Hadith. If we look at the incident from a purely secular point of view, we see that she was not the best person to rule. In response to the warning from Suleiman (عليه السلام), she surrendered while her generals were willing to fight. Her generals said:

قَالُواْ نَحْنُ أُوْلُواْ قُوَّةٍ وَأُولُو بَأْسٍ شَدِيدٍ وَالاٌّمْرُ إِلَيْكِ فَانظُرِى مَاذَا تَأْمُرِينَ

They said, “We are men of strength and of great military might, but the command is yours, so see what you will command.” [Q.27:33]

Her response was as follows:

قَالَتْ إِنَّ الْمُلُوكَ إِذَا دَخَلُواْ قَرْيَةً أَفْسَدُوهَا وَجَعَلُواْ أَعِزَّةَ أَهْلِهَآ أَذِلَّةً وَكَذلِكَ يَفْعَلُونَ – وَإِنِّى مُرْسِلَةٌ إِلَيْهِمْ بِهَدِيَّةٍ فَنَاظِرَةٌ بِمَ يَرْجِعُ الْمُرْسَلُونَ

She said, “Indeed kings – when they enter a city, they ruin it and render the honored of its people humbled. And thus do they do. But indeed, I will send to them a gift and see with what [reply] the messengers will return.” [Q.27:34-35]

From a secular point of view, she should have fought back for her sovereignty instead of surrendering to an aggressing foreign nation. The example of the Queen of Sheba is not a justification and argument against the Hadith of the Prophet (ﷺ).

There have been successful women leaders

The Prophet (ﷺ) did not say that a woman leading is bound to fail. He made a statement which means that a nation that does not honor merit will not be successful. This also does not mean that a woman becoming the head of the state once, or in rare occasions, would result in doom for that nation but that the attitude of forgoing merit will eventually result in failure. The Persians were used to the system of kingship where the rule would remain within the family and this concept is condemned by the Prophet (ﷺ).

The focus of the Prophet (ﷺ) on merit is seen throughout his life where he would choose the best person for the tasks at hand. Moreover, he said:

إِنَّا وَاللَّهِ لاَ نُوَلِّي عَلَى هَذَا الْعَمَلِ أَحَدًا سَأَلَهُ وَلاَ أَحَدًا حَرَصَ عَلَيْهِ

Verily, by Allah, we do not appoint anyone to this position (of authority) who asks for it or is anxious for it [Sahih Muslim 1733 iii].

Ibn Taymiyyah said:

إن الله يقيم الدولة العادلة وإن كانت كافرة ولا يقيم الدولة الظالمة وإن كانت مسلمة

Allah can allow the just state to prosper, even if it is based on disbelief while He may not allow an unjust state to continue, even if it is Muslim.

Can this ruling change with time?

The short answer is that the ruling cannot be changed. There is a concept behind this that requires a separate study for which this is a recommended reading [*].

Indeed, Allah knows best.

Recommended reading: Can women take positions of leadership and authority in Islam?

References and footnotes:

[1] The details of the disagreement are not the subject of this paper; however, in brief, the idea is that the opposing views to the Hanafi position state that the duty of judging necessitates having full view, being shrewd and having experience related to the incidents in life. The fact that the experience of women is less and that they are not involved in the incidents in life very much is very important. Hanafis have a counter to this: not all men have thorough experience of all aspects of life and hence, many men would not be suitable to judge as well. Moreover, if a woman does not come across some things by herself, she does witness them around her either in the society or in her own family and hence, she is not automatically disqualified to be a judge solely because she is a woman. The debate continues back and forth over some other aspects as well; however, these are not the subject of this paper. It must be mentioned that the scholars agree over the idea that a woman can be a legal consultant as was Aisha (رضي الله عنها), the wife of the Prophet (ﷺ) after his death.

[2] Islam is very strict when it comes to a stable center so much so that there are strict instructions to obey the ruler even if he is a tyrant. A weak center results in an overall weak government and disorder in society.

[3] Tall people more likely to be successful in life, study finds.

[4] Democracy is not in compliance with the Islamic political system – there may be some points that can be reconciled but the overall systems cannot be harmonized.

Democracy is an old system from thousands of years back and has immense technical and practical limitations. Consider an example (for a Parliamentary democracy – similar examples exist in a Presidential democracy as well): Imagine a young graduate in the field of Finance, for example, joins the Finance Ministry. The young graduate gains a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in economics with distinction. He then works day and night and becomes the Secretary, the highest possible position for that man. A rich man with a lot of land, money, personal servants who may practically be his slaves, and power and influence wins the elections and becomes the Secretary’s boss to become the Finance Minister. Does this occurrence seem fair and will this bring out the best in operations? Even if we assume that the Minister wins fair and square and is not corrupt and is an expert economist, how can he be more competent than the secretary who has spent more than 30 years in the Ministry and knows the minute details of each and every aspect of his work? In democracy, the deserving person does not get the chance to lead; someone else from outside takes over that job. This old and outdated system only results in lower levels of efficiency while Islam does not seek to please {most of the people}. Moreover, the Minister comes and goes while the people in the Ministry stay in most cases which makes the system rigid and not changeable within the Minister’s duration of service. Whatever effort he exerts to bring change will be resisted by the current rigid system and hence, the democratic system turns out to be rigid, dictatorial, and undemocratic. Such a system comes into place after years and years of evolution and is true of western democracies while in newer democracies, the ruling party dismisses all the political staff from the previous government and hire its own who in turn get dismissed when the other party comes into power and this weakens the processes and nothing runs smoothly for a time. The eventual evolution of newer democracies is into the rigid, dictatorial, and undemocratic western democracies.

Moreover, the democracies we see now are not as per the original definitions of democracy; they have been tampered with and modified to a significant extent taking away the people’s rights that were granted in the original form of democracy. In direct or pure democracy, the people governed directly based on referendums and other devices of empowerment to cater to the popular will. People voted for each issue. Modern variants have taken away these rights of the people and have turned them into an autocratic type. In such modern systems, sovereignty is held by the people’s representatives and they do not consult the people on every issue – in fact they may not even consult them on any issue and decide at will whether they like it not. This is true for most (or all) western democracies. Some may go one step further and opt for controlled democracies where one more level of rights is infringed upon, autocratic powers take over, and rule at will. Practically, bad rulers in modern democracies and controlled democracies are the same for the people in terms of rights and the latter can even be better than the former.

This is only a matter of taking it one step forward. Who decided that the modern form is the ultimate democracy and the dividing line which one cannot, and should not, cross over into controlled democracies or even dictatorship? The Islamic system is beyond modern democracy but before dictatorship.

[5] In a society where the silliest people and the biggest failures of society have the same worth and power in political matters as an honorable judge, for example, there are bound to be imperfections. This is why we normally see that there are usually two major parties in most countries that take turn in forming the government; the sane voices get votes only in single figure percentages.

[6] Men and women can never be friends – but sex has nothing to do with it

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3 thoughts on “Islamic stance on women as heads of states

  1. salamu alaikum wr wb

    I hope everything is good brother. Wanted to ask, if I may know, what topics will you discuss in the couple of next articles? BarakAllahu feek

    • Wa’alaykumusSalaam wr wb,

      I don’t have any lined up yet but if you have a request, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

      Second book will be published on Eid day iA.

      • Saw the comment a bit late, sorry for that. I hope your books will have great success 🙂

        I don‘t know what exactly, but I thought, if you think there is a need of a deeper explanation about the hadith of the season and hell, seekershub has answered this on the following link and I think it‘s good, but if you think there is a need of a deeper explanation that would be great also 🙂

        http://seekershub.org/ans-blog/2015/06/29/how-to-understand-the-hadith-about-hell-and-the-seasons/

        Of course only if you have time and the motivation to do it brother, I know you surely have much to do and it takes much to do all the research so I‘m just giving you ideas.. I‘ve heard also that some would like to read an article about the verse where Allah speaks about the two easts and wests, but I don‘t know if that‘s necessary since ibn kathir explains this good in his Tafsir.. May Allah reward you and make you firm on his deen! May Allah accept our fast!

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