Women Political Participation In the Islamic Normative Period:
An Analytical Inquiry
The term political participation is applied to the activities of people from all levels of a political system. Sometimes the term is applied more to political orientation than activities. It is defined in such a way as to include the exercise of power in non-governmental as well as governmental spheres. Some definitions of political participation include orientations or attitudes such as knowledge and interest in politics, identification with a political unit, sense of political competence or efficacy, sense of civic duty and political behaviour as well.
One of the most controversial questions to be answered in arriving at a definition of political participation is the element of will or intention. Myron Wiener restricts his definition to VOLUNTARY ACTION. Similarly, Verba and Pye seem to stress INTENTION of actors by defining political participation as “those activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of governmental personnel and/or the actions they take.” Huntington and Nelson on the other hand argued that voluntary (autonomous) and manipulated (mobilized) participation are not clearly distinguished categories. Rather, they form a spectrum. The point on the spectrum, which divides mobilized and autonomous participation, cannot be other than arbitrary.1
Political participation has been characterized as a sign of political health and the best method of protecting public interest. Political philosophers see it as a source of vitality and creative energy, as a defence against tyranny and as a means of enacting collective wisdom. By involving people in the affairs of the state, participation should promote stability and order in the system. Popular participation gives an opportunity to the citizens to express their opinion, criticize their leaders and guide the policy to the right direction.
Conventional social scientists associate political participation exclusively with democracy and modernity. They argue that the modern state is distinguished from the traditional state by the extent to which people participation in politics are affected by politics in large-scale political units. They also argue that modern society is a PARTICIPANT SOCIETY, whereas the traditional society is distinctively non-participant.
It would appear that conventional social scientist have a problem with their tools of analysis which led them to the above generalization. Essentially, the problem stems from their categorization of society into modern and traditional and lumping the Islamic society into the latter category. The correct categorization however, would be to divide society into traditional, modern and Islamic society.
In the Islamic society, which is distinct from traditional and modern societies, there exists the highest form of political participation. According to Islam, political participation is a religious duty enjoined upon every member of society irrespective of gender or social status. With its emphasis on community and brotherhood, Islam encourages its adherents to be involved at all levels of public life. The institution of SHURA gives every Muslim the right to participate in the process of governing his country while AL-AMR BI AL-MA’RUF WA AL-NAHY AN AL-MUNKAR makes it incumbent upon Muslims, individually and collectively, to be the watchdog of their own society.
It is a well-known fact that in Islam there is no dichotomy between church and state, the religious and the mundane, between Caesar and God. Islam as a complete way of life governs all aspects of human life including individual and collective, public and private and otherwise. Politics is one of the most important aspects of the Muslim life. Its practice forms part of the prophetic function, which the believers take up as representatives of the Prophet. Unlike Jesus for example, who (allegedly) shun politics and left governance to Caesar, Muhammad is the first politician and statesman in the Islamic state and political activity is as much part of his mission as prayer and JIHAD. Thus, political participation becomes an act of worship which is highly rewarded and to which majority of Muslims aspire, thereby making them the largest politically active community in the world.
Since its normative period, Islamic society has enjoyed a high degree of political participation by all segments of society including women. In fact, women political participation in the early days of Islam has been the source of amazement to many researchers. Women are known to be less interested in politics than men; and that is in all ages and societies including modern democratic societies. This is why the high number of Muslim women active in politics in the classical period of Islamic history, especially during the reign of the Rightly Guided Caliphs and the early part of the Umayyad dynasty, continue to attract attention of researchers and students of Islamic political thought.
Islam has accorded women a position of honour in society. After freeing them from the myth of the original sin, it went ahead to make them full partners of men as one of the two pairs that make up the human family.2 Women for the first time in history were made responsible, given rights and burdened with responsibilities.3 They were given equal opportunities for social, spiritual and intellectual development. They pursued learning until they excelled in various branches of Islamic scholarship. This gave them general awareness in particular, which made possible this high degree of political participation that is unparallel in human history.
The aim of this paper is to study this phenomenon by examining different modes of political participation in the said period and analyzing women’s role in them.
In every society, political awareness must precede political participation. Political awareness is part of the general awareness, or education, that a system provides to the people. Educational systems and policies are very crucial in spreading political awareness among citizens. The objectives of education, its content, spread and manner of dissemination all play a major role in shaping political awareness of a people and moulding their collective personality. For a people to be politically aware, they must be conversant with their history and culture, understand their society and absorb its norms and values. They must attain a certain level of group identify and embody the yearnings and aspirations of their collectivity. Both the rulers and the ruled must enter into a sort of social contract which would cement societal ties and give society a sense of direction. Individuals must acquire a high degree of ideological commitment and the whole society be geared towards political activity.
Right from its inception, Islam accorded education a high place in its scheme of things. Indeed, the first revelation to Prophet Muhammad, as is well known, began with the word “Read”. The Prophet himself used to teach the small community of early converts in Makkah. And as Islam spread to the far reaches of the Arabian Peninsula, he sent his trusted companions to teach the new converts. Because the Arabs at that time were largely illiterate, early Islamic education took the form of mass mobilization. Knowledge was disseminated to large masses of people in form of sermons and public lectures. Virtually every social and religious occasion was used to impart knowledge. Jumu’at and Eid sermons, marriage ceremonies and other social gatherings were used as platform for passing the message and for spreading education and enlightenment. In this way, Muslim masses were mobilized and they became highly politicized and active in the affairs of their society. And there was no difference between men and women in this respect.
Female companions of the Prophet were active members of society. They attended the five daily congregational prayers in the Prophet’s mosque, took part in jihad campaigns and were very active in learning and imparting knowledge. Because of their zeal for learning, they asked the Prophet to set aside a day for them so that they might come and take lessons from him.4 This he did thereby giving them ample opportunity for intellectual development as well as spiritual upliftment. Many of them excelled in learning and participated fully in the affairs of the nascent Islamic state.
Modes of Political Participation
Conventional political scientists have identified a number of ways in which a citizen can participate in the political processes of a society that subscribe to democracy. Some of these are located within the electoral sub-system and some outside it. However, all participatory acts are important because it is by engaging in such activities that citizens exercise varying degree of influence over political outcomes in the system, in terms of both selection of rulers and the policies and actions they pursue.
Some of the most important modes of participation include voting which is the most frequent citizen activity in the modern democracies. Voting exerts influence over leaders who adjust their policies in order to gain votes, since the vote determines who will hold the elective office.
Another important way of participation is the campaign activities, which is a part of the electoral process. Through this mode of action, the citizens can increase their influence over election outcome beyond the one vote allocated to each one of them. The campaign activities require more initiative than the act of voting and the citizens active in it are those who have closer contact with the candidate and therefore the greater influence. Other modes of participation include citizen-initiated contacts, co-operation activities, public discussions, speech-writing and speech-making as well as other citizens-based activites.5 Participatory activities in democracies are mainly about projecting citizens’ preferences and putting pressure on rulers to act towards realizing them.
In Islam, political participation is regarded as an act of worship undertaken by Muslims seeking the countenance of Allah. This was especially so during the period under study, when faith was stronger and inclination to worldly gain minimal. Islam has opened many avenues for political participation. This includes AL-AMR BI AL-MA’RUF WA AL-NAHY AN AL-MUNKAR (i.e. enjoining the good and forbidding the evil) which is unique to Islam. AL-AMR BI AL-MA’RUF requires Muslims to have a say on every issue that affects society at all levels, to urge, to commend, to criticize and to correct. It is the most effective means of checks and balances ever devised in a system.
There are no less than three verses in the Noble Qur’an6, which explain and expand upon this political and religious duty of Muslims. AL-AMR BI AL-MA’RUF is portrayed in the Qur’an as one of the factors that distinguish the Muslims Ummah from other nations. It is on account of this duty, according to the Qur’an, that Muslims are made the best of communities ever evolved for mankind. It is also a unifying factor, which cements the brotherly ties of believers by making them keepers of one another. Through this agency, Muslims are able to stand up firmly for justice, fight oppression and corruption and strive on the path of reform and renewal. Finally, AL-AMR BI AL-MA’RUF creates awareness in individuals of their obligations towards their society and this awareness, in turn, breeds active and keen participation in politics.
AL-AMR BI AL-MA’RUF can also take the form of social criticism through the agency of the written or spoken word. It could be formal or informal, in public or in private, and it could be directed against public officials or public institutions. Although it is a duty on every Muslim, some citizens are more qualified to undertake it than others. This is what is implied in the following verse: “Let there be a group from among you who invite to goodness and enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency…”7 In the modern context, this public duty would be best suited to a class of people who are highly educated and very well informed such as journalists, academics, politicians and professional social critics. During the period under study, people who were well learned and pious mainly undertook it.
Meetings to discuss social problems and think out solutions for them are another mode of participation in public life encouraged by Islam. Islam has instituted regular and mandatory meetings for Muslims on different levels. There are the daily meetings (the five daily prayers at the grass root level), the weekly meetings (Jumu’at prayers at village, town and district levels) and annual meetings (the Hajj at the international level). These meetings are essentially religious in nature but they are also meant to be social and political as well. They afforded citizens the opportunity to know one another and to get acquainted with local and international problems facing Muslims. This make the generality of Muslims politically aware and keeps them involved in the affairs of their society. Thus, while governments under other systems discourage public gatherings and some even go to the extent of banning them, Islam strongly recommends them and even makes them mandatory. And because women are members in all these meetings, Muslim women are thereby fully integrated into the political life of the Islamic state.
Voting is also a mode of participation in the Islamic system but it is not as important as it is in the liberal democracy. Islam recognizes election as the legitimate means of installing a government. But voting by all citizens was impracticable during the period under study for obvious reasons. Therefore, voting was restricted to high government officials and other influential citizens (AHL AL-HIL WA AL-AQD) who often resided in the capital. Their choice, however, required confirmation by expression of popular support on the part of the citizenry through the oath of allegiance, or BAI’AH.8
There were other modes of participation at high and low levels of government, which provided Muslims with avenues for active political participation. Muslim women in the classical period of Islam made use of these avenues, sometimes indirectly but more often directly and quite actively. History has recorded women in the Islamic polity who participated in high levels of policy formulation and decision-making. Others were highly effective speakers-teachers and orators-who helped in shaping public opinion and directing the tide of events. Women initiated civil and political movements, led “opposition” groups and even commanded rebel armies. They lived up to the demands of leadership, displaying heroism and making supreme sacrifices. They accomplished all this within the bounds of the Shari’ah – not as rebels against their own faith nor imitators of others. Islam provided them with space to realize and develop their potential, develop their capabilities and be useful members of society.
Below we shall outline some of the areas that witnessed active women participation in the political process of the early Islamic state, the kind of which the modern woman in the most democratic society today can only dream of.
Freedom of Expression
Right from the time of the Prophet, Muslim women were encouraged to express their opinion freely and their advice was even sought after in important matters. The classic example here is the case of Ummu Salmah, the wife of the Prophet, whose advice saved a very volatile situation. This was in the sixth year after Hijrah when the Prophet wanted to make pilgrimage to Makkah but was prevented from entering the city by the Quraysh tribal chieftains. After lengthy negotiations at al-Hudaibiyya between the Muslims and the Quraysh delegation, an agreement was reached which stipulated, among other things, that the Muslims would not enter Makkah that year but could return for the pilgrimage the next year. The companions of the Prophet, who regarded this as an affront to themselves and a humiliation to the nascent Islamic state, were very angry. And when the Prophet ordered them to suspend the Hajj ritual they had come to perform, they were reluctant to obey him.
This was unprecedented. For the first time the Companions were reluctant to obey an order explicitly given by their leader. The Prophet was very disturbed and he angrily left the scene and retired to his tent. Ummu Salmah, who was waiting in the tent, saw the anger on the Prophet’s face and quickly calmed him down. Then she enquired what the matter was. Upon learning the situation, she gave the following advice: “O Messenger of Allah, do not worry about this. Go out and do not speak to anyone. Call for your animal and slaughter it. Then call your barber and have your head shaved. When they see that, they will follow suit.” And that was what happened. After seeing the Prophet shaved and slaughtered his animal, the Companions rose as one man, slaughtered their animals and shaved their heads.
This was not an exception but the rule. It was not a coincidence that the ruler and supreme commander of the Islamic state sought advice from his wife on an issue that affects the survival of the state. Islamic history is replete with similar instances. When the famous Muslim general, Khalid bin Walid, received a letter from his Commander-in-Chief, Umar bin al-Khattab, relieving him of his post as the Commander of the Muslim army in Syria, the former sought advice from his sister Fatima bint al-Walid. She advised him to relinquish the post immediately as defying the Caliph’s order would not be in the interest of the Muslim Ummah.9
Similarly, when the Umayyad Caliph, Umar bin Abd al-Aziz, ascended the throne and began confiscating ill-gotten wealth from members of the ruling family, the Umayyad novelty rallied round the Caliph’s aunt, Fatimah bint Marwan, and asked her to intervene. She sought audience with the new Caliph, conferred with him and returned to advise her people accordingly.
Now let us pause briefly to pose the question: Why should a great man and brilliant general like Khalid bin Walid want to consult a woman on the most important matter affecting his life and career if women were not recognized as politically astute and intellectually mature? And why should a ruling clan resolve to take a problem they saw as affecting the whole family to a woman and ask for her intervention? It is very clear from the above instances that women enjoyed a high position of honour and their opinion and views carried weight in political circles and corridors of power.
The role of Muslim women did not stop at expressing opinion or giving advice behind closed doors. Whenever occasion demanded, Muslim women raised their voice and carried their campaign to the public domain. A number of Muslim women were on record to have used the power of speech in the struggle to establish truth and justice in society. History books are full of eloquent sermons and speeches credited to Muslim women, which is a testimony to their political awareness and involvement in the public affairs of their society.
Notable women orators include Aisha, the youngest wife of the Prophet. Aisha was a powerful orator whose political sermons and speeches served as a relying point for Muslim masses and on many occasions moved men to action. She led the opposition against Mu’awiya’s effort to introduce monarchical rule into Islam. She used her position as the wife of the Prophet and daughter of the second Caliph to galvanize opposition against Banu Umayyah and to rally support for the Hijazi faction led by Abd Allah bin Zubair. This, in part, led to the battle of al-Jamal, which she virtually commanded, and the unfortunate events that followed.10
Na’ila, the wife of the third Caliph Uthman, was another Muslim woman orator who was noted for her eloquence and presence of mind. On the day her husband was killed, she gave a powerful speech at the Mosque of the Prophet in which she analyzed the events leading to the assassination of the Caliph. She called on the Muslims to unite in the face of the renegades who killed her husband and to save the Islamic State from disintegration. This speech served as a policy guideline on which the Madinite leaders based their response to the challenge of the rebels.11
The classical period of Islam saw the emergence of women leaders who attained high qualities of leadership. They combined strength of character with eloquence and political astuteness that made them the undisputed leaders of their people. One of such women was Saudah bint Ammarah who was the leader of her people, Banu Hamdan, one of the most important and powerful tribes in Arabia. Banu Hamdan were opposed to Mu’awiyah in his five year power struggle with Ali. Therefore, when he became the absolute ruler of the Islamic caliphate, Mu’awiyah appointed a very tough man as ruler over the province of Banu Hamdan and he ruled them with an iron hand. Consequently, Saudah led a delegation of her people to the capital, Damascus, where she engaged the Caliph in heated and nerve-wrecking negotiations. She demanded the immediate removal of Mu’awiya’s representative in her province failing which she threatened open rebellion. Mu’awiyah was very angry and threatened to have her arrested there and then, but the lady stood firm and the Caliph finally relented and gave in to her demands.12
Many other women, like Zarqa bint Adiy and Arkashah bint Atrashah, were known to have led their people, exercising authority over them and commanding loyalty and respect from them.
Heroism and Sacrifice
At its inception, Islam faced fierce opposition from idol-worshippers and later from the Jews and hypocrites. Early Muslims had to bear hardship and make sacrifices. Women, being among the disadvantaged groups in the Arabian society, bore the brunt of it all. They endured abuse, cruel torture and exile. Indeed, the first martyr in Islam was a woman named Sumayyah.
During the Prophet’s lifetime, the role of women on the battlefield was largely confined to supporting the troops by providing food and water, caring for the wounded and taking the dead home. However, sometimes women engaged in physical combat and a few of them made name as fine fighters. Among these was the famous heroine of the Battle of Uhud, Umm Ammarah Nusaibah bint Ka’ab bin Amr al-Ansari. This woman fought alongside her husband, Yazid bin Asim, and her two sons, Habib and Abdullah. She displayed extreme courage and valour, physically eliminating a number of the enemy and sustaining many injuries herself. The Prophet later paid her the following tribute. “Nusaibah’s performance,” he said, “was better than that of so and so (men). Wherever I turned right and left, I saw her fighting in my defence.”14
In the subsequent years, women did not only take part in warfare but they planned battles and commanded armies. One ready example of this is Ghazala al-Harruriyyah. Her husband was Shabib bin Yazid, leader of one of the Kharijite factions that for years gave Umayyad rulers sleepless nights. She used to fight alongside her husband and when he was killed, she took command of the rebel-army. She was able to defeat the Caliph’s army in twenty successive battles over a period of two years. In one of those battles, she put to plight many notable warriors including the notoriously ruthless Umayyad commander, Hajjaj bin Yusuf al-Thaqafi, thereby for even tainting his otherwise glorious military career.
Ghazala once led a daring commando action on the city of Kufah. Leading one thousand men and two hundred women, she took the official residence of the emir and the central mosque where she put up a podium and gave a sermon of defiance and victory.15
In their jihad campaigns, Muslims used to take their wives with them. Once in a battle with the Romans in northern Iraq, Muslims had left their wives in the camp. The size of the Roman army was overwhelming and the scale of victory nearly tilted against the Muslims. When the women sensed the danger, they met immediately to assessed the situation. One of them, Azdah bint al-Harith bin Kildah, suggested that they should do something to save the situation. Thereupon, they put on suits of armour like knights, mounted the spare horses they could find and came out raising banners. They charged the battlefield, with Azhad at their head, chanting war cries. When the enemy saw them, they fled in disarray. The Muslims pursued them, killing and taking captives. This shrewd strategy won the Muslims a resounding victory.16
There are hundreds of such examples, which testify to the high political awareness enjoyed by Muslims women during that period and the level of their involvement in public affairs and particularly their active participation in the political process of their country. Women played a significant role throughout the turbulent period that began with the assassination of Uthman and ended with the consolidation of the Umayyads as a ruling dynasty in the Islamic State. This high degree of political participation of women, which is perhaps without parallel in human history, was made possible by the awareness brought about by Islam which librated the Muslim women from the shackles of the JAHILI society.
We have seen from the above the position enjoyed by the Muslim woman in the classical period of Islamic history. We have also seen her level of general awareness, and political awareness in particular, and how this gave her a unique opportunity to participate actively in the political process of her country and to contribute to the general development of her society.
What remains to be stated is the fact that this phenomenon, despite its pervasive nature, is in fact an exception not the rule. Despite her active political participation, the Muslim woman of the early period did not take on politics as a profession nor indeed did she consider public life as her sphere of activity.
The early Muslim woman was well aware that her place was in the home but she took part in politics because it was forced on her by circumstances. The social upheavals and the constant wars and strife that greeted the advent of Islam and the early Islamic state forced the Muslim woman to take a position and to act accordingly. And because she was equipped for such an eventuality, she was able to meet the challenge.
The early Muslim woman took up arms and was involved in politics because she believed she was doing her own duty for the defence of Islam. She did not come out of her home because she was discarding HIJAB or in any way being rebellious to Islamic teachings. On the contrary, she threw herself in danger and endured all sorts of hardship because of her commitment to Islam. Nor was she imitating other peoples or aping a foreign culture and shifting her loyalty to another ideology or way of life. But she was in fact demonstrating to the whole world her commitment and loyalty to Islam. She was living Islam.
- Das, H.H. and B.C. Choudhury, Introduction to Political Sociology, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1999, p.147.
- The Noble Qur’an, 4:41.
- See the Qur’an 2:228, 4:32, 16:97, and 33:35.
- Reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim. See al-Nawawi, Riyad al-Salihin, Dar al-Ma’amun, Damascus, 1988, p. 400.
- Das and Choudhury, op. cit., pp. 154-5.
- See and the Noble Qur’an, 3:104, 3:110, and 9:71.
- The Qur’an, 3:104.
- This was the practice of the Companions throughout the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs and beyond.
- Ibn Hajar, A.A. al-Isabah fi Tamyiz al-Sahabah, 1, Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, Beirut, n.d., pp. 412-414; see also, al-Zirkali, al-A’lam, vol. 2, Dar al-llm li al-Malayin, Beirut, 1990, p. 300.
- Ibn Sa’ad, M. al-Tabaqat al-Kubra, 8, Dar Sadir, Beirut, n.d., pp. 58-80.
- , vol. 8 p. 410.
- , vol. 7 p. 180.
- , vol. 7 p. 209.
- Hajar, op. cit., vol. 4 pp. 403-4.
- Al-Zirkaki, op. cit., vol. 5 p.118.
- Ibn, Sa’ad, op. cit., vol. 8 p. 101.