Can women be leaders in Islam?
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
It is permissible for a woman to be an authority and leader in any 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.
It is incorrectly claimed by some people that women can have no authority in Islam because men have been given the responsibility to leads, defend, and maintain the livelihoods of women, their wives and their children.
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ
Men are guardians over women by what Allah has favored some over others and by what they spend of their wealth.
Surat al-Nisa 4:34
The ‘favor’ of men over women refers to the physical strength of men, which is on average much greater than women and which enables men to better perform hard physical labor and military duties. In return, women should obey their husbands if they fulfill their duties of providing for them and protecting them.
Al-Qurtubi comments on this verse, saying:
أَيْ يَقُومُونَ بِالنَّفَقَةِ عَلَيْهِنَّ وَالذَّبِّ عَنْهُنَّ وَأَيْضًا فَإِنَّ فِيهِمُ الْحُكَّامَ وَالْأُمَرَاءَ وَمَنْ يَغْزُو وَلَيْسَ ذَلِكَ فِي النِّسَاءِ
It means men sustain women by spending upon them and defending them. Likewise, among men are rulers, commanders, and those who wage military campaigns; it is not like that among women.
Source: Tafsīr al-Qurṭubī 4:34
The physiological differences between men and women in this regard cannot be ignored, as even today professional sports leagues are separated between men and women, and occupations like construction work and frontline combat duty are almost exclusively male.
Even though there are plenty of exceptions to this general observation, as some women can be much physically stronger than some men, it is true on the whole and rules are formulated based upon the majority of cases and not exceptions.
In ancient societies, women were simply not qualified most of the time to lead the military because they generally lacked the physical strength required to be successful.
It was in this context that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
لَنْ يُفْلِحَ قَوْمٌ وَلَّوْا أَمْرَهُمْ امْرَأَةً
A people will not succeed who are commanded by a woman.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 4163, Grade: Sahih
There surely have been successful female military leaders, but again they are the exception.
That men have a degree of authority and responsibility does not mean women have no say in the matter. Part of Islamic chivalry is for a husband to consult his wife, or for men to consult women on pertinent issues, in order to benefit from their unique perspectives.
The Prophet (s) once consulted his wife Umm Salamah (ra) on a serious matter, and she provided him with a key insight into his problem.
Marwan reported: After the treaty of Hudabiyyah 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, then shave your hair.
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 he told her about their 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 own sacrifice and have called the barber to shave your head.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 2731, Grade: Sahih
The Prophet (s) followed the advice of his wife and made his preparations to end the pilgrimage. The companions would soon follow his lead.
In this example, it was his wife whose exceptional intelligence provided him with guidance and resolution. Intelligence is not simply a linear matter of more or less. There are varieties of intelligence, such as emotional and personal intelligence, which women can excel at and benefit men with their advice.
Ibn Hajar writes:
وَجَوَازُ مُشَاوَرَةِ الْمَرْأَةِ الْفَاضِلَةِ وَفَضْلُ أُمِّ سَلَمَةَ وَوُفُورُ عَقْلِهَا حَتَّى قَالَ إِمَامُ الْحَرَمَيْنِ لَا نَعْلَمُ امْرَأَةً أَشَارَتْ بِرَأْيٍ فَأَصَابَتْ إِلَّا أُمَّ سَلَمَةَ
It is permissible to consult a meritorious woman, and the merit of Umm Salamah and her abundant intelligence were such that Imam al-Haramayn said: We do not know of a woman expressing her opinion and being correct as much as Umm Salamah.
Source: Fatḥ al-Bārī 5/347
A woman is allowed to disagree with her husband or male leaders, as long as both parties respect each other with good manners. Men, in return, ought to be humble enough to accept that they are wrong if a woman points it out.
In one episode, the Caliph of all Muslims himself was corrected by a woman in public and he accepted her correction gracefully.
Abdur Rahman As-Salami reported: Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said:
لَا تُغَالُوا فِي مُهُورِ النِّسَاءِ
Do not be excessive in the dowry of women.
A woman said, “It is no so, O Umar, for Allah said: And you gave one of them a great amount,” (4:20). Umar said:
إِنَّ امْرَأَةً خَاصَمَتْ عُمَرَ فَخَصَمَتْهُ
Indeed, a woman has challenged Umar and she has defeated him.
Source: Muṣannaf ‘Abd al-Razzāq 10420
In another narration, Umar said:
امْرَأَةٌ أَصَابَتْ وَرَجُلٌ أَخْطَأَ
The woman is right and the man is wrong.
Source: al-Akhbār al-Muwaffaqīyāt 1/251
Though some scholars did not allow it, others permitted women to serve as a judge in various capacities for which she is qualified.
Ibn Hajar writes:
وَخَالَفَ ابْنُ جَرِيرٍ الطَّبَرِيُّ فَقَالَ يَجُوزُ أَنْ تَقْضِيَ فِيمَا تُقْبَلُ شَهَادَتُهَا فِيهِ وَأَطْلَقَ بَعْضُ الْمَالِكِيَّةِ الْجَوَازَ
Ibn Jarir al-Tabari disagreed and he said it is permissible for a woman to be a judge over matters in which her testimony is accepted. Some of the Maliki scholars gave them unrestricted permission to do so.
Source: Fatḥ al-Bārī 13/56
Even so, a woman may assume any position of leadership as long as she is the most qualified person for the job. Samra bint Nahik, for example, was a woman in the time of the companions who was placed in charge of policing the marketplace.
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 Samra bint Nahik and she had met the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. She had on herself 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-Kabīr 785, Grade: Hasan
And Ibn Abdul Barr writes:
أدركت رَسُول اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وكانت تمر فِي الأسواق وتأمر بالمعروف وتنهى عَنِ المنكر وتضرب الناس عَلَى ذلك بسوط كَانَ معها
She knew the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, during her lifetime. She would patrol the markets by enjoining good and forbidding evil. She would discipline people with a whip she had with her.
Source: al-Istī’āb fī Maʻrifat al-Aṣḥāb 4/1863
The purpose of the classical rules, then, was to facilitate men and women performing complementary, and flexible to an extent, gender roles. Because men and women have natural physiological differences, customary gender roles are reasonable and conducive to a functional society.
However, because there are always exceptions to general observations, a measure of adaptability to changing customs and circumstances is warranted; there are some potential cases when a woman is the most qualified to do what a man might customarily do in other times and places.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.