Note: I have edited my needless conclusion, which is merely a personal opinion undeserving of being written or read, and not in line with the propriety of a beginner student of knowledge. Conclusions are for the fuqaha to make. Thus, I will only leave the actual translation of Maulana Thanawi’s verdict here, wa billahi tawfiq – Salman
I remember, one day in college, some of us brothers were discussing who the next MSA president would be. A few were quite fearful, for whatever reason, that a sister would emerge into that role. I remember remarking to these brothers, “What’s the problem with that?” to which they replied that the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said:
لن يفلح قوم ولوا أمرهم امرأة
“Never will a nation be successful that is ruled by a woman.”
(Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al Maghazi. Also narrated in Kitab al Fitan by Bukhari and Tirmidhi, the latter from Muhammad ibn Muthana, and Nasa’i in Fadha’il)
Of course, they were mistaken in applying this narration generally across the board and thus forbidding female-leadership unconditionally. Yet, the fact of the matter is that such a narration is quite specific in its application, in the type of governance and leadership it refers to, and is not a universal negation of women holding any sort of leadership position.
Our Master, Ashraf `Ali Thanawi (May Allah be well-pleased with him) clarified this at length in his Imdad al Fatawa when asked regarding current day female leaders. He replied:
“Government can be of the three types:
Firstly, one that is autocratic (tamam) and generally encompassing (`aam). By ‘autocratic’ what is meant is the leader having sole authority, such that his/her governing is individual (shakhsi) without any need or approval from any other governor upon whom his/her decisions rest (mawquf). By ‘generally encompassing’ what is meant is that his/her subjects not be an exceedingly minute (qalil) group.
Secondly, one that is autocratic but not generally encompassing.
Thirdly, one that is generally encompassing but not autocratic.
An example of the first type is a woman being given sole sultanate or presidency, with the conditions mentioned previously.
An example of the second type is a woman receiving complete administrative duties over a small group, at the exclusion of all others.
An example of the third type is a woman being a democratic leader, yet, such that her guardianship is only an apparent (suri) one and not real (haqiqi). Rather, an integral part [of such a system of government] is seeking counsel (mashwera), and real leadership (wali haqiqi) therefore belongs to the parliament.
Analyzing the wording of the narration in question carefully brings to light the fact that it is in reference to the first group. Thus, the reason behind the [prophetic] statement, which was due to the Persians making Kisra [s: the name given to the leader] the monarch, unconditionally and completely as pointed to by the word usage, and connecting such leadership over a nation (qawm) – all of this contextualizes the narration.”
He continues a few lines down by stating:
“This is in opposition to the second type, which although has complete guardianship is not consigned over a nation [s: a “generally encompassing” body, as outlined before].
It is in opposition to the third type, which although is connected to a nation, does not constitute absolute and complete guardianship due to the presence of a counsel. Even though such counsel is given preference over individual counsels, it does not constitute complete and absolute guardianship…
Such contextualization is clear from the words of the hadith.”
Maulana Thanawi then continues by giving proof from the texts proving the validity and legitimacy of female leadership in certain cases – such as those of type two and three.
For type two, he brings forth the narration:
“A woman is a guardian over the household of her husband.”
(Bukhari and Muslim)
This proves that the leadership and guardianship of a woman, even if completely, over a minute constituency is valid.
As for type three, he gives the example of Queen Bilqis, who is referred to in the Qur’an, as being a “democratic leader” and the absence of any texts that imply her being removed from such a post even after her accepting the religion of Allah.
Since the basis was the establishment of her rulership and nothing specifies her removal from such a position, Maulana Thanawi brings forth the well known principle (qa’ida) that “Any matter passed upon by Allah and His Messenger without condemnation is a proof upon us.” Thus, it is established from the Qur’an that such a leadership is permitted for a woman since the reality of such governance is based on counsel and the woman only serves as the guardian of the counsel – not the ultimate authority.
Rather, Maulana stipulates that even if the woman has complete and sole leadership yet she, out of her own accord, chooses not to opinionate solely on her individual views and opinions, even this type of leadership does not enter into the forbidden leadership that the narration alludes to.
All of this is proof for the validity of the third type of government.
To conclude, he states:
“When the evidence establishes that the guardianship and leadership being referred to is that of type one then it becomes clear that the leadership of women in our times does not enter into this narration. This is because if we consider those that she rules over to be a small minority then it is of the second type [which is not interdicted]. If we do not consider her leadership to be over a very small group, which is what is clear today, even then such governance is democratic [and thus not interdicted]. This is whether such a system is manifestly apparent, such as in the case of the presence of a clearly viewable parliament, or non-apparent, such as the absence of a parliament yet the necessity of having laws passed through the consent of a representative or penitent of the leader. This enters into the third type.”
(Imdad al Fatawa, Vol 5 Pg: 91)
And Allah Knows Best