Like most American citizens, devout Muslims are puzzled about how to vote in this presidential race.
Obviously, they are uncomfortable with the anti-Muslim sentiments voiced by the Republican nominee. The more interesting question is: Would devout Muslims feel comfortable voting for a woman? This is a more theological question, which relates to the sacred Muslim texts, the Qur’an and Hadith (Muhammad’s sayings).
While some Muslim scholars, following basic Islamic tenets, believe that gender equality is counter to Islam and that women are suitable merely “to deliver children,” this is not the only existing Islamic view. Many Muslim scholars, particularly in the West, insist that Islam is compatible with modern standards of gender equality. Some go farther, to suggest that Muhammad, in his treatment of his many wives and of women in general, was a feminist. Consequently, a convert can boast: “I’m a feminist and I converted to Islam.” This positive rhetoric can emerge in Western societies where Islam is a relatively unknown faith, and where its sacred texts are difficult to access.
From conversations I have had with many Muslims here in the States, I am convinced that the devout among them, who understand various elements in the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life, and classical Islamic jurisprudence, will be uneasy voting for a woman.
In one of the most authentic Sunni Hadith collections, Sahih Bukhari, Muhammad is reported to have said: “Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.” This was the Prophet’s response to the news that the Persians had appointed Khosrau’s daughter as their Queen. This hadith is reported twice in Sahih Bukhari. It is mentioned in other authentic Sunni collections, such as Sunan al-Nasa’i, under the title “The Etiquette of Judges: Prohibition of Appointing Women for Judgment,” and Sunan al-Tirmidhi. Its appearance in these several collections indicates not only the authenticity of the saying as attributed to Muhammad, but also the traditional view toward women rulers.
This view does not indicate that Islam considers women essentially sinful, compared to men. Rather, it reflects an Islamic understanding of the intellectual difference between the genders. For instance, the Qur’an instructs that in matters of justice, the witness of a woman is equal to half of that of a man: “Take as witness two witnesses from your men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women” (Q 2:282). When Muhammad was asked about this verse, he said: “This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind.”
On one occasion, Muhammad was going to a ritual prayer and saw a woman. He told her: “Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you [women].” When asked the reason for women’s being consigned to hell, Muhammad answered: “I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you [women]. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” Once again, women are characterized as “deficient in intelligence.” In this instance, they also appear “deficient in … religion.” Tradition explains the latter claim in light of the command that women must neither pray nor fast during their menses.
Therefore, for some Muslims, women are not fit for the post of ruler. Neither Muhammad nor the Rightly Guided Caliphs appointed a woman in a governing or judging post. For these Muslims, a new custom, which does not follow the tradition of the pious forefathers, cannot be invented in modern days.
Other Muslims, especially in the West, disagree, and attempt to provide new interpretations for these classical sacred texts. Such interpretations do not necessarily stem from a comprehensive reading of the Qur’an or Hadith. Rather, they represent an attempt to create an appealing Islam that fits contemporary standards.
So, would devout Muslims vote for a woman? This is a theological question, and it all depends on whether they follow the sacred texts themselves or the reinterpretations offered by modern religious scholars.
Ayman S. Ibrahim is postdoctoral candidate in Middle Eastern history at Haifa University and assistant professor of Islamic studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.