WOMEN IN POLITICS is a touchy subject – not just among Muslims, but even among non-Muslims. The Western world has had only a handful of female political leaders and their governments have only relatively recently included more female politicians, with sexism remaining rampant. In the Muslim world, centuries of culture have perpetuated the idea that women are unfit for the public sphere, let alone the political –and while there are countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan which have had female leaders, the participation of women in politics remains an ongoing struggle.
The involvement of women in politics has been frowned upon by many Muslims, justified with the use of the following ḥadîth:
Never will a people be successful who give their leadership to a woman. (Bukhâri)
While the commonly taught meaning of this ḥadîth is to prohibit women from being heads of state, Sh. Muhammad Akram Nadwi shared another understanding of it:
The full story is that the Prophet œ sent a letter of da¢wah to the Persian king, Kisra (Chosroes/Khosrow), who tore up the letter. In response, the Prophet œ made du¢â’ that his empire be torn up just as he tore up the letter. Shortly after, Kisra died, and his daughter was elected the ruler. When the Prophet œ heard the news, he made the remark that is so well known today:
Never will a people be successful who give their leadership to a woman. (Bukhâri)
However, what is not taken into consideration is that he was remarking very specifically about the nation of Kisra – that they (a people who had made a woman their leader) would never be successful, not because their leader was a woman, but because the Prophet œ had made du¢â’ for their entire empire to be destroyed.
Specifying “a people… who give their leadership to a woman” was merely referring to the people of Kisra, whom (it appears) were unique at the time for having a female leader. Thus, it must be understood that the hadith of Abû Bakrah is not a blanket statement to be used for preventing women from having any positions of authority, but rather, a specific statement aimed at a specific nation.
Putting aside the issue of heads of state, however, the fact remains that any involvement of women in the political arena is very often frowned upon. It is considered to be a near-transgression, a crossing of boundaries from the domestic domain to the public sphere. This attitude, however, did not exist at the time of the Prophet œ. Indeed, his wives – the Mothers of the Believers themselves – were themselves very involved in their society, not just as generous philanthropists or spiritual examples, but as politically aware individuals.
Umm Salamah is one of the Ummahât Al-Mu‘minîn (Mothers of the Believers) who played a pivotal role in Islam’s political history. Known as a narrator of Ḥadîth and a jurist, Umm Salamah demonstrated her knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom on many occasions – but most notably, during the time that the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyah was signed between the Prophet œ and the people of Quraysh.
The context surrounding the treaty is imperative to know: it was the 6th year of hijra, after the major battles against the Quraysh had been fought. The Muslims were now a powerful force in Madinah, although Makkah had not yet been conquered. After the battles of Badr, Uḥud, Khandaq and Aḥzâb, the Muslims were in a position of power and authority that they had never since experienced… yet up until that moment, none of them had been able to return to Makkah to make the sacred pilgrimages. Their hearts, and the heart of the Prophet most of all, longed to go to the Sacred Sanctuary and witness the Ka¢bah with their own eyes again, to perform Hajj and Umrah in complete devotion to Allah.
One morning, the Prophet œ woke up, his face shining with joy. He had had a dream: He had seen his Companions shaving their heads, emerging from the state of Iḥrâm (a state of sacrosanct consecration). The dreams of the Prophets are a type of revelation, and always come true – thus he and his Companions knew that this would certainly come to pass. Overwhelmed with happiness, over a thousand Saḥâba, male and female, gathered together with their sacrificial animals, unarmed in accordance to the laws of Iḥrâm, and proceeded towards Makkah… what was still, at yet, considered enemy territory.
A caravan as large as theirs was impossible to keep secret or undetected, and as soon as the Quraysh heard of their intentions, a military unit was sent to block their way. The Prophet œ averted their path, seeking to enter through another way, and the entire Muslim congregation found themselves at the plains of Hudaybiyyah. At that moment, the camel upon which the Prophet rode – Al-Qaswâ’ – stopped, knelt, and refused to move. In vain, the Prophet and the Saḥâba tried to get the camel to move, but to no avail.
It was then that the Prophet realized that there was a much greater reason behind this than his steed’s weariness. “The One Who prevented the elephants from entering Makkah is the One who has prevented Qaswâ’ from doing so,” he informed them.
The Makkans, convinced that the Muslims were ready to attack them, sent another delegation to the Muslims, and ¢Uthmân ibn ¢Affân was sent back with them to explain the situation and to negotiate an agreement. During that time, rumors spread and it was believed that ¢Uthmân had been killed; immediately after that, the momentous occasion of Bay¢at Al-Riḍwân took place – the oath of allegiance to the Prophet œ.
Umm Salamah was one of them, and as such, one of those promised Paradise, as per the words of the Prophet:
None of those who swore allegiance under the tree will enter Hell. [Musnad Aḥmad (3/350) No. 14820, Sunan Abû Dâwûd (2/624) No. 4653, Sunan Al-Tirmidhi (5/695) No. 3860, Al-Tirmidhi said, This ḥadîth is Ṣaḥiḥ]
Other events occurred, all of which led to an increasingly fraught situation; eventually, the Prophet œ and the leaders of Quraysh began to speak and negotiate the terms of their entry into Makkah. The Quraysh spoke with arrogance: Their first condition was that the Muslims immediately return to Madinah, without having ever stepped into the Sacred City; even their return the next year would be limited to three days. With those words, the hearts of the Muslims broke; they had sacrificed so much and gone through so much to fulfill the dream of the Prophet, to experience the deep spiritual fulfillment of Umrah. Yet the Prophet agreed to this condition, and to the others stipulated by the Quraysh, and so the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah was signed. His heart heavy, but with the knowledge that this was what was required, the Prophet œ commanded his Ṣaḥâba to sacrifice their animals and shave their heads.
For the first time ever, the Muslims were in a state of emotional distress and devastation. For the first time ever, the true believers of Islam found themselves in a position where they objected to the actions of their Messenger. And for the first time ever, the Prophet œ found himself in a situation where those most beloved to him, the earliest of Muslims and the most dedicated to Islam, were refusing to follow his command. His face red with anger and sorrow, the Prophet entered the tent of Umm Salamah.
Fully equipped with the understanding of what had taken place, Umm Salamah’s brilliant mind immediately knew how to solve this deeply troubling dilemma. “Sacrifice your animal and shave your head,” she told her husband, the Messenger of Allah. “And you will find that they will obey.”
These words, so few and yet so deep, were what saved the nascent Muslim nation from an ominous disaster. Umm Salamah was a woman well acquainted with the Ṣaḥâba and the state of the Ummah; she understood their emotions, and knew of their devotion to their Messenger.
If she had been a woman who lived only in her own home and tended only to her own household affairs, she would not know this, but this one sentence alone is clear evidence that she was a person who interacted with her society on a daily basis. It is only by being fully aware and up to date with the social and political affairs of the community that one could ever have such insight into why people behave the way they do. Nor can one hope to provide a practical and effective solution to such complex matters of state and religion without knowing exactly what kind of people are engaged in those matters.
When the Prophet œ emerged from his tent in silence, his Companions watched in increasing humility and embarrassment as he sacrificed his hady and shaved his head. Overwhelmed by the realization of their rebellion, and in grief that they had displeased their Messenger in such a severe manner, they immediately followed his lead, thus proving that Umm Salamah’s words were truly that of a brilliant stateswoman, a wise adviser, and a wife who was able to support and assist her husband in the manner he needed most. Not as someone to sleep in his bed or cook his food, but someone who could provide the most judicious of solutions in the most fraught of times. In a situation tense with emotion and political implications, Umm Salamah’s foresight was what protected the entire Muslim Ummah from a civil war. Without her intelligence and political acumen, a difficult situation would have become even worse. And that, in and of itself, is a clear evidence that the Ummah cannot grow, be healthy, and overcome the greatest of tragedies without the active engagement, involvement, and education of Muslim women.
Unfortunately, in most retellings of the Sîrah and biographies of Umm Salamah, this historically crucial moment is given only a few moments of attention. Umm Salamah’s role is typically framed in a decidedly domestic manner: Often portrayed along the lines of a weary, harried husband coming home from work –his patient, wise, maternal wife hearing him out, and giving him a helpful suggestion that surprisingly actually worked. It is this revisioning of women as not being politically important and respected figures that is problematic. Let us pause for a moment and think about it a little more to understand just how little acknowledgement women are given for their involvement.
Imagine if the Prophet œ had chosen to go to Abû Bakr and spoken to him about the matter. Undoubtedly, it would have been seen as a type of political counsel, an example of Abû Bakr displaying his political acumen and understanding of complex matters of state. This is not, however, how Umm Salamah is portrayed. It is telling how language is used to describe women’s roles, engagement, and involvement. Imagine if we spoke of Umm Salamah as a political analyst, as a woman who was deeply in touch with the currents of public opinion, who could step back from the situation and see the Prophet not just as her husband who was hurting emotionally, but as a leader struggling with a sensitive matter of state!
Her advice was not that of a woman removed from society, but the analysis of an individual keenly aware of the political state of the Ummah. Umm Salamah’s words did not come from a place of isolation, but of engagement and involvement. Beyond that one moment was clearly an entire history of her place within society – not as a woman relegated to the domestic sphere alone, but an active member of the community.
Nor was Umm Salamah an anomaly or an exception. Ḥafṣah bint ¢Umar, another one of the Ummahât Al-Mu‘minîn, was an influential political adviser to her father ¢Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb when he was caliph. Umm Al-Banîn bint ¢Abd Al-¢Azîz, the sister of the famous ¢Umar ibn ¢Abd Al-¢Azîz, is known for a scathing speech she inflicted upon one of the most feared figures of her time – Al-Ḥajjâj ibn Yûsuf. Nana Asma’u, the daughter of the famous Dan Fodio of Nigeria, played a powerful role in the Sokoto caliphate of Africa. Pari Khan Khanum, a Persian princess, was assassinated due to her political acumen and position as one of the Safavid Empire’s key players.
These were all great Muslim women who played strong political roles in the Ummah –not by merely sitting on the sidelines and murmuring demure “suggestions” in the ears of their husbands and fathers, but by being active, involved, and engaged in their societies, aware of political tensions and nuances, and unhesitating in speaking up. These women were driven by a sense of spiritual responsibility, knowing that Allah had given them insight, and that they too carried the obligation of bettering their societies.
When we recognize that Muslim women have as valuable a role to play in the political arena, and that the Ummah will only benefit from the contributions of spiritually conscious and socially aware Muslim women, we will begin to see significant change in our currently deplorable state. Muslim men and women alike have much to learn from the history of Umm Salamah and the many other women who have pushed our Ummah to greatness – and it is in their footsteps that we should seek to build ourselves up again. The forgotten heroines of the past are the people whose example will inspire and galvanize the heroes and heroines of generations to come.