With respect to the specific area of leadership in the sense of holding public office, there is nothing in the Shariah (Islamic law) which says in unequivocal terms that women may not hold positions of leadership or public office. Indeed there is an indication that it is proper for women to hold public office in particular areas, for instance the education field so long this position and its nature do not prevent the Muslim woman from fulfilling her other more important obligations. However, there are three exceptions to this general permissibility of holding positions of public office about which Islamic scholars could not reach a consensus. These three positions are the Head of State, a Judge or the Commander of an army. Is there any basis for this reservation in the Quran or Sunnah?
Although there is no text from the Qur'an to endorse the exclusion of women from positions of leadership, there is a hadith of the Prophet stating: "People will not prosper if they choose as their Head of State a woman". He is said to have made this remark on hearing that the Persians had selected the daughter of their recently deceased Emperor to rule over them. Jurists have specified that the Prophet was particularly referring to the selection of a woman as a Head of State [Jamal Badawi argues that further research is needed on this subject because one scholar has cast doubt on the hadith itself and on the usual interpretations placed on it.]. However, it is to be noted that there has never been unanimity on this matter among scholars, past and present. Imam 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. 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 madhab is contrary to this.
If the hadith is accepted as it is, there might be several possible reasons for this comment by the Prophet (SM). Firstly, it should be remembered that the Prophet was speaking from an Islamic point of view. In Islam, the Head of the Muslim community is not simply the spokesperson of people, with duties and responsibilities to them, he is also the person who leads the prayers and heads the army in the battlefield: he is not simply a figure-head. We elaborated in a previous lecture that the organization of Muslim prayers does not permit women being in front of men. Even in the most 'liberated' Western societies, one does not generally see women with so militaristic a mentality that they wish to command armies. In Islam, the position of leadership of the community is not a prize that people fight for; it is a burden and a responsibility which is bestowed on the most fitting person by the people.
In this regard, prominent Muslim scholar Shah Abdul Hannan said, “Quran does not prohibit woman leadership in a clear manner. There are evidences in the Quran in Ch. 4 v.59 and in Ch. 9 v.71 that women can be Ulil Amr and Wali of all, men and women, apart from the story of Queen Saba. The evidence against woman leadership in Sunnah is weak and unclear. Moreover, an Ahad Hadith ( in most cases reported by a single companion and which did not become well-known in the 2 or 3 generations), which is by definition Zanni (speculative), can not be the basis of prohibition or decision about important issues like Aqidah, hadd or human rights of any class of people, men or women. Such issues can not and should not be determined on the basis of Ahad, more so , when there is a question about its authenticity or clarity or context.”
Last but not least, with regard to barring women from serving as judges, again there is no unanimity amongst jurists on this question. There are those who say that by analogy with the foregoing, Muslim women should not serve as judges
a. because the role of the judge has similarities with the role of the ruler; and
b. since the head of the family is the husband, it cannot be that a woman should hold as high a position as that of judge.
A minority view, however, is that since the above saying of the Prophet (SAWS) specified that women should not serve as rulers in the Islamic state, it cannot he used to exclude women from any other position (At Tabari). Another view, as expounded by Abu Hanifa for example, is that since the Qur'an indicated that women may serve as witnesses in financial transactions, they may also judge on financial and other matters. In this regard, Dr Yusuf Al Qaradawi said, “Here, we should keep in mind that the permissibility of appointing woman as a judge does not necessitate it. Rather, the public interest of the Muslim society and the welfare the woman herself and the family should be the main criterion in deciding whether it is necessary to appoint a woman in such serious position or not.”
In this lecture, we present an overview of evidences from Quran and Sunnah along with different scholars’ opinions regarding political rights of muslim women. However, we believe more in-depth research is needed on this topic as this has become an important issue for present day Muslims.