When I read the newspapers, which I do on a regular basis, I cringe at the reports on the abuse of women especially in “Muslim” countries. Many of them suffer so much pain and so much trauma, because of their gender. Every time this is highlighted in the press, for whatever the reasons might be. The reasons do not interest me, the abuse does. Just recently I read about a young woman who committed suicide because her face was disfigured by hot water for something she had done, and another who was disfigured by acid for something she had done. Our humanity should scream out against this but we do not say anything. I do not wish to comment on our silence; it is so disgraceful. All this abuse of women is supposed to be in the name of Islam.
What does Islam teach us? There is an opinion amongst Muslims that women should not be heard because their voices are awrah. I want to know how it is humanly possible for a woman, within family and social relationships to only have her voice heard by minors, mahrams or other women. How is this possible? And so she dare not pick up a telephone or answer the door bell. Do you think that Islam would have placed such a heavy burden on a woman? Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) had told his Companions (r.a.) to learn Islam at the feet of the “red head”. This was Sayyidatuna Aishah (r.a.) and she spoke from behind a curtain because of her immense beauty. I balk at the idea of how silence is imposed on women in many countries. Sometimes even scholars use this mistaken idea that a woman’s voice is awrah, to silence them and to dehumanise them. That is why they preach that women should be totally covered in black and in some cases not even her eyes can be seen.
There is not a single line in the Qur’an that in any way encourages gender discrimination. In fact, when Allah (ﷻ) speaks to us about various matters in our religion, He speaks to all people. We know that. In Suratul Fatihah when we supplicate with words that He has taught us, He tells us to say:
إِهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيْمَ
Show us the Straight Path (i: 6).
The only spiritual station that cannot be attained by women is that of Prophethood. This is not discrimination on the basis of gender but because of function. Allah (ﷻ) details this more in another verse:
إِنَّ الْمُسْلِمِيْنَ وَ الْمُسْلِمَاتِ وَ الْمُؤْمِنِيْنَ وَ الْمُؤْمِنَاتِ وَ الْقَانِتِيْنَ وَ الْقَانِتَاتِ وَ الصَّادِقِيْنَ وَ الصَّادِقَاتِ وَ الصَّابِرِيْنَ وَ الصَّابِرَاتِ وَ الْخَاشِعِيْنَ وَ الْخَاشِعَاتِ وَ الْمُصَدِّقِيْنَ وَ الْمُصَدِّقَاتِ وَ الصَّائِمِيْنَ وَ الصَّائِمَاتِ وَ الْحَافِظِيْنَ فُرُوْجَهَمْ وَ الْحَافِظَاتِ وَ الذَّاكِرِيْنَ اللهَ كَثِيْرًا وَ الذَّاكِرَاتِ أَعَدَّ اللهُ لَهُمْ مَغْفِرَةً وَ أَجْرًا عَظِيْمًا
For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise, for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward (xxxiii: 35).
So nowhere in the Qur’an is there any verse or an indication in any verse that when it comes to religious achievements women are behind that of men. A large number of intensely pious women were produced by Islam, and the special grades of Paradise for some of them, tell the whole story.
One of the traditions that is used by scholars to help to silence women in different ways, are the words of Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) in which he says: “A nation that has entrusted its affairs to a woman can never be successful.” (Tirmidhi, vol. 4, no. 2269). This can also be found in Bukhari and Nasa’i. One must be very careful about quoting this tradition without taking into consideration the circumstances under which it was stated, whether it had to be applied absolutely, or whether, in its general application there are major exceptions. Sometimes the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) spoke in response to certain circumstances, and today we use these words in response to other circumstances. We must be careful.
What, for example, are we going to do in the case of a girls’ school with a lady principal? Are we going to put a man in charge of all the lady teachers and female students? And what about a group of nurses who are overseen by a staff nurse? Are we going to replace the staff nurse with a male nurse? We can quote so many examples of this nature. Of course, we know that in the home the husband is in charge of its affairs, which have to be conducted in terms of religious principles. So, what happens if the husband falls away? What does the mother do, as had happened in my own personal case when my father died and I was only seven years of age? Circumstances placed my mother in charge of a household with nine children. We must be realistic about all of these.
I am totally opposed to women occupying positions of leadership where her dignity and safety are endangered. That is why I oppose women occupying positions of leadership in politics here in South Africa, because of the possibilities of sexual harassment (as has happened) and intrusions into her dignity as a woman. There might be other similar fields where security with regard to her dignity as a woman and her safety as a woman cannot be guaranteed. We must be very careful of this. I would not be surprised that the words spoken by the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) partly referred to these kinds of situations, because he was very concerned about the protection, safety and dignity as human beings, of women; a concern all of us should have.
Even in the home where the husband is in charge especially with regard to religious matters, whose opinion should be taken with regard to the children’s education in the home if the wife is an educationist? And whose opinion should be taken with regard to the health care of the children when the wife is a doctor? We cannot just apply rules and regulations blindly. This was never meant in Islam. One has to study circumstances and all those factors that impact on those circumstances to see how the rules governing gender have to be applied. It appears that this is what many scholars don’t do. Circumstances and relevant factors should be unpacked so that decisions with regard to gender are applied indiscriminately, by giving due cognizance to the teaching of our Holy Religion. When I dictate this, I think of the occasion when the Prophet (ﷺ) advised a lady to lead her family in salah, because she was the only one in the family who knew how to pray. What other decision could he have taken? And I think of the number of lady-scholars who Imam Shafi’i had as teachers. Who was in charge when Imam Shafi’i was being taught, the teacher or the student? In the application of religious laws and regulations in our lives, we must apply such rules and regulations with wisdom and understanding. If we look at the history of Islam especially that of the Holy Prophet (ﷺ), there are countless examples available of how he used his wisdom and understanding of conditions to apply religious laws. In English we have the saying: we must think outside the box. He (ﷺ) did this all the time.
We ask Almighty Allah to make Islam in our hands a form of liberation of the human mind (of both genders) and to give us an understanding of His religion that will enable us to give each human being his or her rightful place in our communities, amin. I want to return to the words of the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) and I want to ask: “Do these words mean that wherever there is any form of authority, in all kinds of relationships, that a woman cannot be in charge?”
Shaykh Achmat Hendricks of the Azzawiyyah Masjid gave the following view on the above Tradition:
- Does it mean that a woman is less capable than a man? No, there is no evidence that women are considered less able than males to run administrative functions. The clearest proof of this is the fact that Sayyiduna ‘Umar (r.a.) appointed his daughter Hafsa (r.a.) to administer his huge waqf and she was also entrusted with Sayyiduna Abu Bakr’s (r.a.) compilation of the Quran. And this while his son Abdullah ibn ‘Umar (r.a.), one of the great scholars of the Sahabah, was present with them.
- The other ahadith which mention a similar point about women in leadership positions, generally juxtaposes her with a just ruler. Now a just ruler is one who runs matters of state on the basis of shura or consultation with the various interest groups in a society, protects their borders and enforces justice.
Now in those early years of Islam, when the Muslim Community was under threat of war, the rule of women could well have caused the community to lose some of its charisma or other nations might have seen this as a weakness since women were not seen as warriors. If the prohibition on appointing women as the highest source of authority in a country is related to the general spirit/adah of the time, the prohibition will be understood as karahah not hurmah. This principle can be seen at work with the whole issue of the “prohibition” on men to cut their beards.
On the basis of this and similar arguments, later Ash’aris reject that women can be Prophets even though Imam Ash’ari himself believed some women mentioned in the Qur’an are in fact Prophets.
- Another possibility is that the apparent prohibition in that hadith is restricted to women guilty of plotting from behind the “throne”; those who use their husbands to promote personal and private interests. The ruler has to rule in the interests of the people. The community has to be above his own personal interests, family attachments and the interests of his circle of friends and so forth.
- The jurists of the different schools of fiqh have widely differing views on the permissibility of appointing a female as the highest authority in a country. She is allowed by most to occupy any other position beside the Presidency or whatever the title of the ruler might be. From another angle the prohibition also seems to be related to a matter of priorities. In terms of the view of the Din that the first concern of Muslim women has to be rearing the nation.
[Letters to Seekers on the Spiritual Path Vol 2 – Unpublished 2012]